Study On The Book Of Isaiah
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This whole chapter is in effect an elaboration of the last two lines of 45:20, “Ignorant are those who carry about idols of wood, who pray to gods that cannot save.” Bel and Nebo were pagan gods. Cyrus’s conquest of Babylon enhanced the status of Bel and Nebo rather diminishing it. But how different things are now; the greatness of Bel and Nebo is a distant memory, while the Lord is known and worshipped by millions. It is easy, of course, to see this in hindsight. It’s much harder to take the long view when evil is in full flight. That, however, is exactly what Isaiah does here. He asks the exiles to look beyond the present to what will finally be the case, and paints a graphic picture of the shame and disgrace that await all man-made religion and those who trust in it.
But he goes further. In verses 3-7 he asks Israel to reflect again on the fundamental absurdity of idolatry and the contrast between it and their own covenant faith. “Idolaters carry their gods,” says the Lord, “but I carry you. I have carried you since you were born, and I will never stop carrying you until your days are done.” There it is in a nutshell; false religion is based on works, true religion on grace. So it has always been and so it always will be (see Eph. 2:8-9)
The last part of the chapter, though, comes as something of a shock (vv. 8-13). Surely if God carries His people in His arms He could be expected to use only affirmative, comforting language in His dealings with them. Not so! God’s love is robust, not weak and indulgent. He cares for His people too deeply to deprive them of necessary rebuke. Rebels, He calls them, stubborn-hearted, and you who are far from righteousness (vv. 8, 12). We might think for a moment that He has turned His attention to the pagan idol-worshippers. But this is clearly not the case. Remember this in verse 8 is the sequel to listen to me, O house of Jacob in verse 3. The audience is the same.
So what then is the reason for the strong language the Lord uses? The answer lies in His reference to Cyrus as a bird of prey in verse 11, probably reflecting again the shocked response which Isaiah expected the Lord’s choice of Cyrus to evoke. How could it be right for God to choose such a man, and how could He have His people’s best interests at heart in doing so? But such a response is equivalent to rebellion against God, for it calls into question not just His sovereign freedom, but His goodness – and that is to strike at the very heart of the covenant relationship. It was because He loved Israel that the Lord chose her in the first place, and because of that same love that He had carried her ever since. How dare they doubt His goodness? The strong language is shocking, but it is the language of loving discipline rather than rejection. It is intended to jolt the people of God out of a very dangerous and sinful state of mind, and has their ultimate good in view. However many rough patches there may be in His relationship with them along the way, it is the Lord’s grace rather than their sinfulness that will triumph in the end; He will grant salvation and splendor to His people (v. 13). The two problems that have to be overcome are their circumstances and, more importantly, their heart condition. Both will be taken up afresh in our next study of chapters 47 and 48.
Isaiah 46:1-13 Reflection Questions:
What are some man-made religions today in the 21st century?
Where in Exodus does God talk about carrying His people?
What have you learned about God’s character from this study?
We have now reached one of the grandest moments in the book. Cyrus fades into the background and the whole scene is dominated by the uniqueness and glory of the One who has chosen to use him. The Lord alone is God, and salvation is to be found in no-one else. Cyrus’s mission will demonstrate this fact, and one day people everywhere will acknowledge it. There are two speeches by the Lord in this passage, and two short responses by Isaiah.
The first speech, in verse 14, is addressed to Jerusalem, as indicated by the use of the singular pronoun “you”. But here Jerusalem stands for the people of God – the citizens of Jerusalem – scattered by their enemies, but destined to return. The astounding assertion of this speech is that they will rule the world! The rich agricultural products and other merchandise of the Nile valley will flow into Jerusalem, and the tall Sabeans, the inhabitants of its most remote upper regions, will come like prisoners in a victory parade, confessing that there is no God but the One who reigns in Jerusalem. Like the Magi who came to worship Jesus, they represent all that is remote and exotic in the world, while Egypt represents everything cultured, rich and oppressive. Although the imagery is commercial and military, what is ultimately in view is a conquest that is intensely spiritual in nature, the final triumph of the truth about God. This victory, the Lord declares, will be achieved through Jerusalem, His people whom He is soon to restore to their homeland.
Isaiah’s response (vv. 15-17) is like a grasp of amazement at the sheer audacity of God! No-one who saw the captives from Judah struggling to rebuild their shattered lives in Babylon would guess their significance. They were not a nation – scarcely even the remnant of one, since all their national institutions had been destroyed. God’s purposes, for the present, were hidden in them (v. 15), but would one day become visible. Then the tables would be completely turned; idolaters, presently so powerful, would be put to shame, while God’s people, presently weak and insignificant, would be saved with an everlasting salvation (vv, 16-17). Jesus later made the same point in His teaching about the kingdom of God. Paul put it, “the saints will judge the world”.
Great care is needed in talking about the hiddenness of God. It can suggest that He has deliberately made Himself and His purposes obscure, so that people are driven to seek Him by superstitious, occult means. Nothing could be further from the truth, however, as the Lord’s second speech makes absolutely clear (vv. 18-24). Religious superstition in all its forms, especially idolatry, is quite inexcusable (v. 20b), for God has spoken to His people (and through them to the world) truthfully and clearly, making possible an open and trusting relationship with Him (v. 19). He has also backed up His words through the prophets with actions, such as the raising up of Cyrus, that confirm His claim to be the only God and Savior (v. 21). So people everywhere have been put on notice; one day they will all have to bow the knee to the Lord and confess the truth about Him (vv. 23-24a). The question is whether they will do so now. The salvation He offers must be understood in the light of verses 16-17. It is a share in everlasting salvation, the final state of blessedness He has in store for His people Israel, and escape from everlasting shame and disgrace that will be the lot of idolaters. What an offer! Isaiah’s response (vv. 24b-25) is simply a quiet, respectful summary of it. The hidden God has revealed Himself, and the implications are awesome.
The ultimatum that has come from the throne of heaven is universal in its scope (all you ends of the earth) and yet intensely personal in its reference (every knee, every tongue). And it contains a great imperative within it: such news must be published! The fate of men and women everywhere depend on it. In the final analysis, the vision of Isaiah is a profoundly missionary vision.
Isaiah 45:14-25 Reflection Questions:
Where in the New Testament does Jesus talk about the meek inheriting the earth?
Where does Paul talk about “the saints will judge the world”?
How are you sharing the “good news” of “eternal salvation”?
Do you think God is hidden?
This important passage about Cyrus bursts upon us rather surprisingly and shockingly at this point. The surprise is that he should be spoken of as the Lord’s shepherd (v. 44:28 and His anointed (v. 45:1), directly after a passage in which idolatry has been so comprehensively condemned. For Cyrus himself was a pagan idolater. As we shall see in verses 45:8-13, the Lord’s choice of such a person was to cause Israel considerable bewilderment. But surely there is an important lesson here which the very placement of this passage serves to drive home. God may disapprove of idolatry but use an idolater for some good purpose. The fact that He uses someone in a specific way does not mean that He approves of that person’s total lifestyle. We should neither stand in judgment on God’s actions nor draw wrong conclusions from them, but praise Him for His sovereignty (v. 45:8). His use of Cyrus to shepherd His people home was a stunning demonstration of that sovereignty.
There has been constant reference to creation and redemption in the preceding chapters. Now these two great themes are woven together in a powerful statement by the Lord of His total mastery of the historical process (vv. 44:24-28). In a sense nothing new is said here; it is more like a summary of all that is already “on the record”, so to speak. But the concentration and power of it are impressive, building to the climactic announcement of verse 28. That this pagan emperor, identified by name, will fulfill so exactly what the Lord has announced beforehand will be the final proof that the Lord is indeed who He claims to be. The fact that Cyrus did in fact do just that is a matter of historical record. The Lord’s claims have been vindicated; He is indeed the Creator and Redeemer, not just for Israel, but of the whole earth.
While Cyrus himself is addressed in verses 45:1-7, the words are not primarily intended for him, but for those who were to wait anxiously for his arrival in Babylon. These verses disclose exactly what is in God’s mind concerning him: how God regards him, what help He will give him and why. Three things are said about Cyrus’ mission in these verses: It would be accomplished by God’s help (vv. 1-3a); it would be accomplished for the sake of God’s people (v. 4); and it would be accomplished so that all (v. 6), including Cyrus himself (v. 3a) might know that the Lord alone is God. In short, God was going to use Cyrus to put His people back in Jerusalem, so that from there, the place He had chosen to be the center of His kingdom on earth, the truth about Him might become known everywhere. In the longer plan of God, of course, it was to Jerusalem that Israel’s true Messiah, the Son of David, eventually came to fulfill His mission, and it was from there that the gospel went out to the whole world.
What an appropriate response verse 8 is to the announcement of Cyrus’s mission. God commands the heavens and the earth to respond by bringing forth righteousness and salvation. This echoes the original creation commands of Genesis 1, but what is in view now is the new creation – the new heavens and the new earth – that will eventually emerge from what Cyrus will accomplish. The restoration of Jerusalem would be only the first step, of course, but God can see what it will lead to. No wonder He is enthusiastic!
Sadly though, God’s people do not share His enthusiasm. They cannot see past the fact that Cyrus is a pagan, and because God’s chosen way of working does not fit their own notions of what is proper, they cannot rejoice in it. They are trapped in small-mindedness, like the Pharisees of later times. And God, we sense, can scarcely contain His exasperation with them in verses 9-10. It is often hard to move beyond theologizing to trusting, but we must do so if we are to exercise the kind of faith which God requires of us and without which we cannot please Him. Theological insolence is the blight of religion in every age, and God is rightly angered by it. But He is not deterred by it. He stoutly defends His sovereign freedom as Creator to use anyone He pleases, and the rightness of His choice of Cyrus (vv. 11-13). But how sad that He has to press on with His good plans for His people in the face of their complaints instead of to the joyful strains of their praise!
Isaiah 44:24-45:13 Reflection Questions:
Have you lost your enthusiasm about God’s ultimate plan? Why or why not?
What does this study say to you about being judgmental of others?
Are you trapped in small-mindedness or are open to the sovereignty of God?
Are you working with or against God’s plan? In what ways will you improve on this?
Idolatry is the worst sin of all, because it moves God to the periphery of our lives and puts something else in His place. It gives to something else the glory that should be God’s alone. Chameleon-like, it constantly disguises itself so that we are scarcely aware of its presence, even when we are most in the grip of it. Greed, Paul tells us, is idolatry, because it turns us away from God towards things, and makes the pursuit of them the passion of our lives. Today’s world is no less given over to idolatry than the ancient one; it’s just that its cruder forms were more prevalent then. Of course, idolatry was a pagan practice; Israel was forbidden to have anything to do with it. Yet it always held a fatal attraction for them, even in its crudest forms, because it seemed to work.
It was not just the primitive and backward people who practiced it, but the cultured and powerful – the Egyptians, the Assyrians and the Babylonians. And of course they attributed their success to the power of their gods. How absurd, then, for their humiliated victims to maintain that their God, the Lord, was supreme and that the gods of their conquerors were mere nothings. At times they must have doubted it themselves, and yet they were called to be witnesses to precisely that fact (vv. 6-8).
This is the context in which we see Isaiah’s broadside attack against idolatry in verses 9-20. Its purpose is to expose the real character of idolatry so that Israel will have no illusions about it. The truth is, that idolatry is not only deeply offensive to God, it is also fundamentally absurd; those who indulge in it feed on ashes and their deluded hearts deceive them (v. 20). Human beings make idols (v. 9), but the Lord has made Israel (v. 21), and displays His glory through her (v. 23b). What an honor! And it is an honor that we have inherited as the people of God today!
But such an honor calls for constant vigilance, for the danger of idolatry in one or other of its enticing forms is always with us. Remember, Isaiah says; remember the truth (v. 21). Our eyes and ears are constantly bombarded with lies about God and attractive alternatives to serving Him, and we will be swamped by them unless we constantly call the truth to mind. This is where meditation on Scripture is such a strengthening thing for us, for it is full of the greatness and glory and faithfulness of God. But what if we do stray, and slip into idolatrous patterns of thought or behavior? Return, says Isaiah, to the one who redeemed you (v. 22). We are all going to need a lot of forgiving on our way to our final rest, and the great news of the gospel is that it is available to us. The one condition is that we return and seek God for whenever we stray. Finally, sing for joy (v. 23). This last exhortation is addressed to heavens and earth, mountains, forests and trees, and in a sense they do praise Him; it is only humankind that is idolatrous. But surely, of all created things it is those made in God’s image who ought to praise Him most, and of them, the redeemed most of all. And those who do will find that the battle is won; it is impossible for idolatry to get a foothold in a joyful, praising heart.
Isaiah 44:6-23 Reflection Questions:
Other than greed, what other forms of idolatry does Paul warn us against?
Why do you think sin seems to be attractive and successful?
How do you keep yourself from giving into the temptations and lies that bombard us daily?
“I am the Lord… your King” (vv. 14-15): Here we have the third word of encouragement. If Israel was to witness to the truth about the Lord by a return to Jerusalem, those for whom this might seem impossible would need assurance that the enemy that held them was not invincible. This is what verses 14-15 affirm. In this short oracle mighty Babylon is framed and diminished by the greater reality of Israel’s God (vv. 14a, 15b). As these words cascade out, God’s people are powerfully reminded of all they know about God and His commitment to them. And to this is added a promise addressed to the specific situation of exile (v. 14b). Babylon was certainly a terrible reality, but the greater reality by far was the Lord’s absolute sovereignty, and unswerving commitment to His people. How aptly the last line sums it up: I am the Lord…the King.
“See, I am doing a new thing!” (vv. 16-21): So much for Babylon. But for those who were to leave it at last, there would be other obstacles to be faced, including the desert and the long journey home – the subject of the next word of encouragement in verses 16-21. It was going to be a hard journey for those who were able to make it for two reasons; first, it was across unknown country, (those able to make the journey were born in exile), second, Jerusalem was 500 to 900 miles away depending on the route. The returnees could expect t be travelling for at least four months through harsh terrain, in which they would be vulnerable not only to exhaustion but also to attack by bandits. The wilderness meant hardship and danger. In a sense the wilderness was just as frightening a thing as Babylon. With this in view Isaiah speaks of former things and a new thing. Verses 16-21 are full of allusions to the exodus from Egypt centuries before, and the journey through the desert to Canaan – former things which were fundamental to Israel’s whole existence as the covenant people of God. But then, paradoxically, having deliberately called them to mind, Isaiah diverts attention from them: Forget the former things…See, I am doing a new thing (vv. 18-19). Isaiah wants them to remember that the wilderness has been conquered before and, armed with that knowledge, to go forward and to conquer it again. As they do so, they can be assured that the Lord goes before them to make a way for them through the desert, just as He made one for their ancestors (v. 19). They can be the witness God has created them to be only by going forward with God, by grasping the new thing He has for them (v. 21).
“I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions” (vv. 22-28): The fifth word of encouragement at first sight seems to be nothing of the kind. It consists largely of an indictment of Israel for its corrupt worship. Israel’s worship was such a farce, such a misrepresentation of the truth, that the Lord did not regard it as worship of Himself at all. It was utterly repugnant to Him. So He consigned Israel and its leaders to destruction, and those who survived to the disgrace of exile (v. 28). They had burdened the Lord with their sins and wearied Him with their offences (v. 24b) until His patience had been exhausted. The only solution was to accept their past, with the verdict that God had pronounced on it, and then to reach out with both hands and grasp the forgiveness that He offered them (v. 25).
“I will pour out My Spirit on your offspring” (vv. 44:1-5): The chapter division at 44:1 is particularly unfortunate because 44:1-5 is in fact the sixth and final word of encouragement that caps the whole series. And what a climax it is! All the attention is now focused on the future, a future as different from the past as light is from darkness. As water poured on thirsty land causes it to burst into life again, so the Lord will pour out His Spirit on Israel’s descendants (v. 3). They will spring up like grass in a meadow, like poplars by a flowing stream (v. 4). So blessed will they be; that total outsiders will join them, forsaking their paganism and gladly swear allegiance to Israel’s God. Jacob will no longer be a shameful name, but a glorious one, held in honor by all (v. 5). All this of course, is exactly what was promised to Abraham: a great name, many descendants, blessing overflowing to all the families of the earth. This final word of encouragement to Israel rests upon the bedrock of God’s faithfulness, and strongly affirms His commitment to fulfill His promises to them and through them. All God’s promises would eventually find their resounding “Yes” and “Amen” in Christ, to the glory of God!
Isaiah 43:14-44:5 Reflection Questions:
Are you being held by an enemy (addiction, illness, relationship, etc.) that seems impossible to overcome? How does today’s study encourage you?
What new thing is God doing for you?
What is the most encouraging message of all in verses 22-28 in this study? Why?
This long section (44:1-44:5) is fundamentally a reaffirmation of Israel’s calling to be the Lord’s servant. The fact that the Lord has pointed to another and greater Servant does not mean that Israel’s own servant role has been done away with. Quite the opposite; it is confirmed here in the strongest possible terms. The main thrust of the passage can be summarized in six great statements of encouragement, one for each of its six parts. (We will review two in this study and the remaining four on the next study.)
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you” (vv. 1-7): In these verses you will find some of the tenderest words that God ever spoke to His children. They are addressed to people far from home, still in the midst of fires and deep waters, with many trials to face before they reach their final rest. There is no promise here of a quick fix or a trouble-free future, but God’s sustaining presence right through to the journey’s end, come what may. They are words which as believers can treasure, because even though we have the cross and the empty tomb behind us, we remain aliens and exiles in a hostile world. It is the faithfulness of the same God, who has promised never to leave them or forsake them, that will bring them home. Isaiah goes on to say that the God of creation and redemption is the same God that has created and formed them too, for His glory (vv. 1, 7). People who are loved like that have absolutely nothing to fear.
“You are My witnesses, declares the Lord” (vv. 8-13): Fear of course, turns us in upon ourselves. It chills our heart and silences our lips, and is the greatest possible hindrance to effective witness. So it is not until he has dealt with the fear that was crippling Israel that Isaiah can move on in verses 8-13 to tell them of their call to be the Lord’s witness. Isaiah uses again a favorite literary form, the courtroom drama. The fundamental point behind this figure is that what he asserts are not fables but truths tested and attested at law, verified conclusions based on firm evidence. At first sight it would seem that the issue to be contested is whether, like the Lord, the idol-gods can predict and fulfill their predictions. As we listen to the proceedings, however, this issue begins to recede and to be replaced by a question about which of all the claimant gods can act and which has the sovereign capacity to determine on a course of action and see it through.
Israel’s own blindness and deafness are swallowed up by a new assurance, and they leave the court with a firm tread and heads held high (v. 10b). The feeble people of God can and will be His witnesses! Truth on their side, and as they rise above their fears and proclaim it, that truth will grip them and transform them. Witness is not an onerous burden, but and unspeakable privilege. It is a means not only of projecting the truth about God into the world, but of strengthening God’s people themselves.
But here we strike a problem. How were those whom the enemy would herd off into exile to fulfill their calling to be witnesses? The deportees never did proclaim the truth about the Lord to the nations in the way that we normally think of witnessing today. They simply returned to Jerusalem when God opened the way, and lived there again as His people. But the fact is that this itself was proof of the Lord’s claim to be God, for it was the historical fulfillment of the Word He had spoken concerning them through the prophets. He had done what no other god could do, and established His people like a lamp on a lampstand or a city set on a hill, bearing witness by their very existence to the truth about Him.
Isaiah also foresaw the day when witnessing would assume a far more active form; heralds would be sent out far and wide to proclaim the Lord’s glory among the nations (66:19-20). This lay far beyond the horizon of Isaiah’s own experience, or that of those who were to live through the dark days following his death, but it was part of the vision he gave them. They were to see what happened to them as laying the foundation for something far greater that God would bring to pass in the future, and take courage from that.
Isaiah 43:1-13 Reflection Questions:
Write down as many encouraging words that speak to you in verses 1-7.
What is the correlation between verse 6 and 2 Cor. 6:17-18?
How are you witnessing each day? Do you see witnessing as a privilege?
What lessons do you learn from this study?
What would be more appropriate after a tremendous announcement of the previous passage than a great outburst of praise to God! Like the apostle Paul, Isaiah cannot contain himself when the glory of the gospel grips him. Isaiah calls on the whole world to join him in praising God (vv. 10-11), and why not, since He is the Creator of all and Lord of all? But the song of these verses has a higher theme than this, which emerges in verses 13-16 as the praise reaches its climax in two bold and dramatic pictures of the Lord as the Savor of His people. Redemption is accomplished with tremendous effort and at great cost. He is totally committed to the welfare of His people, however blind they may be and however dark their circumstances (v. 16). This new song anticipates the song of the saints in heaven.
It is the way of great preachers to shock their audiences at times in order to shake them out of their lethargy and gain their attention. Verses 18-25 are a “shocking” passage in that sense. The words “my servant” are now applied to the Lord’s people in the context of a stinging rebuke (v. 19). What a plunge this is from the anticipation of heaven in the previous song and praise. Israel has so given in to bitterness and unbelief that all they are capable of at present is complaint (40:27). They are deaf to God’s Word, and blind to His purposes (vv. 18-19). In this they are no better than their ancestors, whose stubborn rebelliousness led to the punishment of the exile (vv. 23-25). This blindness is doubly culpable since Israel had the benefit of special revelation: the Lord had made His Law great and glorious among them (v. 21).
Isaiah is quite unsparing of the feelings of his audience. Like a good pastor, he knows that they will never know the comfort of God and fulfill their mission to be His servant people until they have faced up to their sinfulness and repented of it. There is no self-righteousness here at all from Isaiah. Note the “we” in “against whom we have sinned” (v. 24). He has never forgotten that moment when he saw the exalted Lord and knew the he himself was unclean and undone as everyone else (6:5). He speaks as one, who has discovered the wonder of forgiveness himself and longs for others to know it too.
Of course, there is a paradox here. In a sense they have already been forgiven (40:2). But what Isaiah is trying to elicit from them is the response that is necessary is they are to appropriate that forgiveness and live in the good of it. So in case they are overwhelmed by his stern rebuke, he moves on quickly, (in our next study), to assure them again of God’s continued commitment to them.
Isaiah 42:10-25 Reflection Questions:
How often do you give praise to God; daily, hourly, weekly?
Have you ever felt like Isaiah; that you couldn’t contain yourself and had to praise God right then? Where does this praise come from?
What is the Scripture that is the “song of the saints” mentioned?
Do you long for others to know the gospel too? What are you doing about that?
The “servant of God” theme is one of the richest strands of Isaiah’s thought, and it lies right at the heart of his message as it moves to its climax in this second half of the book. The announcement at the beginning of the chapter, “Here is my servant…” suggests that a new and significant stage has now been reached in the development of this theme. Clearly, God Himself is the one who makes the announcement in verse 1. But who is the Servant He is referring to, and to whom is He speaking? The announcement is made to God’s people themselves. The Servant it refers to is not just a ideal they should aspire to but (as we shall see in due course) a real person who is God’s answer to their weakness and failure.
There are three parts to this first song. Verses 1-4 are addressed to Israel with the Servant as the subject. Verses 5-7 are addressed to the Servant Himself, with Israel overhearing what is said. Finally, in verses 8-9 Israel is once more addressed directly. The main topic of all three parts is the mission that the Servant is to carry out.
The key term in verses 1-4 is justice. The Servant will bring justice to the nations (v. 1); He will faithfully bring forth justice (v. 3), and He will establish justice on earth (v. 4). But we have to be careful here, for in the book of Isaiah the Hebrew word for justice is a rather bigger thing than we normally think of as justice. In 40:14 it has to do with the order God has given to the whole universe by His creative acts. In 40:27 it refers to the maintenance of Israel’s position in the world as a nation in a special relationship with God, and in 41:1 it has to do with the false claims of the nations and their gods being silenced, and the truth about the Lord’s total sovereignty over history being established. Viewed against this background, the mission of the Servant is a gigantic one. It is nothing less than to put God’s plans for His people into full effect, and to make the truth about the Lord, Israel’s God, known everywhere, especially the fact that He alone is the sovereign Creator and Lord of history.
The same breathtaking mission is explained in verses 5-7 in terms of the Servant being a covenant and a light (v. 6b). As Creator, God is the one who gives breath to all people (v. 5b). Moreover, the God who made the world is committed to its welfare; there is a “covenant” between God and the human race implicit in the act of creation itself. And the Servant, as a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, is to be the very embodiment of that covenant. It is through Him that God’s purposes for His world will be realized, by the opening of blind eyes, and freeing of captives, and the release of those who sit in darkness (v. 7). In short, the Servant will undo all the horrendous and degrading effects that sin has had on the human race and restore to people their true freedom and dignity as sons and daughters of God.
Finally, in verses 8-9, the mission of the Servant is spoken of in terms of former things and new things. The work of the Servant would open a new chapter in God’s relationship with His people and with the world, in which His glory would be displayed in a new way, far surpassing anything that had happened previously. In fact, it would lead eventually to new heavens and a new earth.
The real wonder of the Servant’s mission, however, lies not so much in its breathtaking scope as in the manner in which it will be accomplished. He will not be a military conqueror like Cyrus. The source of His strength will be the Spirit of God (v. 1). The instrument of His rule will be the Word of God (v. 4b). His manner will be gentile rather than overbearing (vv. 2, 3a), and there is more than a hint in the opening line in verse 4 that His mission will involve Him in personal suffering.
This contrast between Cyrus and the Servant brings us back at last to the people in view in this message. They were going to need two kinds of deliverance. They would need release from physical captivity, and God would use Cyrus to achieve that. But they would also need release from bitterness, blindness and spiritual darkness (v. 7). Their deepest need would be for someone who could heal their broken relationship with God. And here God points them to the One who will accomplish that for them. The message of comfort with which chapter 40 opened has its deepest roots here, in the work of the Servant. This first Servant Song is good news for all people, but it was good news for Israel first of all. God’s healing; saving work would bring with them, and then overflow to a waiting world.
Isaiah 42:1-9 Reflection Questions:
Where in the New Testament Gospels do verses 1-4 appear in reference to Christ?
Where do you see yourself in this study?
How are you reflecting God’s glory daily?
The fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC tested Israel’s faith more profoundly than any other single event in the entire Old Testament period. But Isaiah, who clearly saw it would happen (39:5-7), never regarded it as calling God’s sovereignty into question. Babylon like Assyria, had a part to play in the drama of history, but it was the Lord, not they, who wrote the script. After they had made their exit God would press other nations, too, into His service. Isaiah sets out to convince Israel of two things. First, events beginning to take shape about them are the Lord’s doing. Secondly, they themselves, as the surviving remnant of Israel, are God’s servant; He has chosen them and will not abandon them. Therefore they are to see the fear which has gripped them as the irrational baseless thing it is, and not give into it. So how could Isaiah convince Israel that all that was happening to them was the powerful purposeful hand of God?
Isaiah invites them to imagine God summoning the nations before Him to prove, if they can, that they are the ones who shape History (v. 1). But before the bar of God’s judgment throne they have nothing to say. The rapid advance of Cyrus has made them afraid (vv. 2b-3), and it is clear that their idols are powerless to save them, despite their pathetic attempts to pretend that it is otherwise (vv. 5-7). But is it Cyrus himself then, who is the master of the world? “No” says the Lord, “he is merely my instrument. I am the one who has stirred him up” (v. 2a). Verses 1-7 leave us in suspense with the crucial question of evidence that God did orchestrate the events. But in verses 21-29 the Lord takes up this dispute with the proof that He and He alone is Lord of the historical process is that He announces beforehand what will happen, and then brings it to pass, as He has done in the present case, something that no human man-made idol can do. The rise and progress of Cyrus were no accident; they were foretold through Isaiah, and what the nations saw in due course was God putting His powerful Word into effect. More importantly, the exiles from Judah were in a position to see for themselves the correspondence between Isaiah’s inspired predictions and the events unfolding before them, and to know for certain that their God, the God of Israel, was in total command of their world.
But where did this leave them, and what was their response to be in the present circumstances? First, they were to remember who they were. They were collectively God’s servant, just as their ancestors had been before Him (vv. 8-9). As descendants of Abraham, they still shared in his calling to be a blessing to the whole earth. They might feel themselves to be worms (v. 14), to be poor and needy (v. 17), and utterly insignificant (v. 14), and so in a sense they were. Their significance did not reside in themselves however, or in their circumstances, but in the fact that God had chosen them to serve Him (v. 8).
The form that their service would take is indicated by a startling metaphor with verse 15. It is such a contrast to their present weakness that it is laughable. But two things must be kept in mind. First, a threshing-sledge was an instrument in the farmer’s hands. Its effectiveness depended in the last analysis on the power and skill of the one who wielded it. This is much more a statement about what God will make them and what He will do with them than about what they themselves will achieve. Secondly, a threshing-sledge was an instrument for separating the corn from the chaff, for distinguishing between what was to be gathered into the granary and what was to be burned. “Threshing” is a metaphor for judgment.
The surviving remnant of Israel is still the touchstone by which the nations will be judged. In this sense they will fulfill their calling by simply being there, in the world, as the people of God. They are to remember who they are and not give into fear (vv. 10, 14). They had plenty of enemies, and God would deal with these in due course (vv. 11-12). Far more dangerous, however, was the enemy within. That could undermine their whole relationship with God, for it was a denial of everything God had called them to be. So where in their present situation, did they have for trust? Two very good ones. They had God’s promise to strengthen, help and uphold them (v. 10b). They also had the memory of how God had done just that for their ancestors. Verses 17-20 are full of allusions to the exodus from Egypt, when God sustained His people in the wilderness. The implication, of course, is that God’s promises are not idle ones. What He has done before He will do again. The Lord, who was Israel’s Redeemer from Egypt, will also be her Redeemer from Babylon (v. 14).
Isaiah 41:1-29 Reflection Questions:
Are you totally convinced that God is in total control of your personal world?
What are some of your past experiences that confirm God’s sovereignty? Journal on it.
Why is it important to always re-read about and remember God’s control? What is your part to play?
Why is it important to be praying for Israel in today’s world?
Do you see what God has called you to be as a Christian from this study?
The theme of these passages is a grand one, the majesty of God. The reason the gospel is so powerful is that it is no mere human invention; it emanates from the very throne of God. It is powerful because it is God’s gospel, and what a God He is! Amen? Isaiah paints a breathtaking picture of Him in verses 12-26. He created the universe as effortlessly as a skilled craftsman constructing a model on his workbench (v. 12). He is infinitely wise (vv. 13-14), totally sovereign (vv. 15, 17), worthy of more worship than we could ever give Him (v. 16), incomparable (vv. 18-20), and enthroned above the circle of the earth (vv. 22-24).
Lift up your eyes, says Isaiah, and see who it is who has given you His Word. There was plenty on the horizontal plane to discourage Isaiah and his contemporaries, and still more their successors who suffered the humiliation of defeat and deportation. But how could they give in to despair with a God like this? The danger, of course, was not that God would prove inadequate to their need, but that they would forget what God was like. That the God of Israel was the creator and Lord of the whole earth was not a novel idea; it was one of the most fundamental elements of their religious heritage. Their ancestors had seen the proof of it at the Red Sea, and for generations they had affirmed it in public worship. But such truth is not easy to believe when our world is in ruins. In the midst of suffering we can become almost too numb to grasp it. Isaiah therefore clothes the age-old truth in vivid language so that it will penetrate the dullness of those who are almost past hope, take a fresh hold of them, and lift them up.
No sooner has the truth of God’s power begun to take effect however, than an insidious doubt about His goodness begins to assert itself. “In view of all that has happened, can we really believe that God still cares for us? Isn’t the message that He will move heaven and earth to save us rather too superficial? Isn’t the truth rather that we are too small to be of more than passing interest to Him, and if that He ever really cared about us, surely He has long since ceased to do so?” (v. 27)
Isaiah knew that feeling all too well. He himself had been troubled by it many times in his own long pilgrimage of faith. But he had also learned enough about God to know that it was a lie. The glory of God is not just His power, but His servanthood; the fact is that no-one and nothing is too small to be important to God or worthy of His attention and care. God is not only strong Himself (v. 28), but He gives strength to the weary (v. 29). And therefore those who hope in Him will never do so in vain: They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint (vv. 30-31).
Isaiah 40:12-31 Reflection Questions:
If you are going through troubled times; how do you view God?
What are some of your favorite Scriptures you turn to when you need encouraging?
How much do you know about God? Are you studying Him daily?