Isaiah Chapter 41

CHAPTER FORTY-ONE

Jehovah's challenge to idolatrous Gentiles. The hasty construction
of gods that are to protect from a threatened danger. Jehovah's love
for Israel expressed by every form of wording. The paradise on earth.
Where and what is "Har-mageddon"? None but God can tell how
the earth came, so none but He can reveal the future.


The significant "three" is clearly impressed on this chapter. Jehovah challenges the idolatrous Gentiles, next turns to His beloved Israel, and then there is again a return to the vain idols of the Gentiles. Thus we have the following divisions:

1. Verses 1 to 7: Jehovah, not the idol deities, has ruled the politics of earth, and challenges opposition.
2. Verses 8 to 20: Jehovah encourages His servant, Israel.
3. Verses 21 to 29: He exposes the vanity of idols.
1: Keep silence before Me, O islands;
Their strength let the peoples renew;
Let them draw near and speak then;
Let us come into judgment together.
Human affairs are fast heading up to just this climax. There is a constant, unceasing conflict between faith and infidelity, a conflict that can never have truce till one or the other prevails. About sixty years ago a far-sighted writer penned these words:

Never in the history of man, has so terrific a calamity befallen the
race, as that which all who look, may now behold, advancing as a
deluge, black with destruction, resistless in might, uprooting our
most cherished hope, engulfing our most precious creed, and
burying our highest life in mindless desolation.1

The writer is not anticipating the great war of 1914-18, but the deeper conflict between faith and infidelity that has continued and intensified exceedingly since those words of foresight were written. And which of these has advanced most in that interval—Faith or Infidelity? It has seen Deism recovering fast from the blow that it received in Wesley's day, and taking a prominent, if not a dominant place in "Christian" (?) pulpits; doubts at first cunningly diffused developing into open attacks on all that is supernatural, till the blatant and bloody Anti-theism of the Bolshevik has taken a rooted place in the earth. It is Infidelity that has flourished; whilst in the mass Faith has become so feeble that the question of the Lord, spoken as with a sigh, has fresh significance: "When the Son of Man cometh shall He find faith upon the earth?" But God lets this conflict go to the end. He bids the clamor of the "isles" (that is really, the sea-washed continents) to cease, and invites them to a trial in which they will need all their strength, so it had better be renewed.

2: Who hath raised up one from the sunrise,
Righteousness2 called to attend him,
Given him nations before him,
Made kings to submit to his rule,
Gave them as dust to his sword,
To his bow as wind-driven stubble?
3: He chased them, passed over in safety
By a way that his feet had not trodden.3
4: Who is it hath wrought this, hath done it?
'Tis He who calls into existence
Generations from the beginning.
I, Jehovah, the First, with the last,
I, and I only, am HE!
5: The islands have seen it, and trembled;
The ends of the earth, and they shuddered
As they approached and drew near.
6: Then everyone helped his neighbor,
And to his brother cried, Courage!
7: The smith4 encouraged the founder,
And he who smoothed with the hammer
Gave cheer to him who smote anvil
Declaring the soldering good;
Then fastened it safely with nails,
So that it should not be shaken.
The challenge is in the form of a question: Who called that conquering hero from the sunrise? "Called him!" Can we not hear a scoffer of that day saying, "Why, there is not a hint of any such conqueror coming at all. Year after year Babylon remains in her security, the Jews remain in their captivity, where is the promise of this coming one? It is nothing but the chimera of fanaticism." Let us wait and see.

Cyrus, although still unnamed, comes within the vision of the prophet; and although his coming is still in the future, yet so sure is it, as determined by the divine counsels, that it is spoken of as if it were a past event, as is the Hebrew way of expressing certainty. Who then could have brought him onto the stage of the world's history, and laid out for him that path of unbroken victories, so that nations are broken up before his sword as if they were dust? Who, behind that human actor, has both initiated and carried out the plan? The answer is again that majestic: "I, Jehovah, without beginning, ever The First, before there was any creature, visible or invisible; and, since that creation shall never pass away but always exist, I am with the last." The nations see that approaching danger from afar, and take counsel to resist it. They are not prepared; their "confidences" have even to be made, and with haste they cheer one another to the utmost activity in manufacturing what shall save them! And, in verses 6 and 7, again we have an ironic description of the making, not of a personal god, as in the previous chapter, but of a national idol; and the poor "god" has to be nailed down lest he fall! But might it not be said, as indeed it is said, by the Popish imitators of these ancient idolators, that those who made these idols knew well that they were in themselves nothing but metal, stone or wood, and it was not these that they really worshipped, but the Power behind them. The visible images merely served as an aid to faith. Nay, more, would not 1 Cor. 10:20, "The things which the heathen sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God," fully justify that, although in a very bad sense? If so, in what consists the point of this ironic description? Surely in this: The image is a perfect representation of what it images, differing in this from a type, or shadow (Heb. 10:1); thus these avowed images justly express, when opposed to the true God, the spirit-powers themselves; and in their utter helpless vanity are excellent representatives of the wicked spirits behind them, as are the images of popery—they amount to nothing.

But there is One who is indeed the "image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15), for He is the "brightness of His glory, and the exact expression of His substance" (Heb. 1:3), and He did indeed perfectly express God in every word and work. Any confidence that rivals Him is as vain as the idols of old, or the modern substitute for them, the wealth that we now esteem the safest reliance. O fellow-Christian, may we have grace to cast away every other confidence, but never that in Him, which has "great recompense of reward" (Heb. 10:35).

8: But, Israel, thou art My servant,
Jacob whom I have chosen,
Seed of Abraham My friend.
9: Thou whom I've led by the hand,
E'en from the ends of the earth,
Aye, from its corners5 have called thee,
Have said to thee, Thou art My servant;
Thee have I chosen, nor cast thee away.
10: Fear not, for I will be with thee;
Be not dismayed, for I am thy God;
Strong will I make thee,
Indeed6 I will help thee,
Indeed6 I'll uphold thee
With My righteous right hand.
11: See, wrathful ones raging against thee!
They shall all be ashamed and confounded,
They shall be as though they were nothing—
The men of thy word-feuds must perish;
12: Thou shalt even seek but not find them.
The men of thy strivings, where are they?
The men of the warfare against thee
Shall be as though they were not!
As a thing that has no existence!
13: For I, Jehovah thy God,
Firmly will hold thy right hand,
He who saith to thee, Fear not;
For I, even I, am thy helper.
14: Fear not! O thou worm Jacob,
Ye who are lsrael's few men,7
'Tis I who will help thee, Jehovah proclaimeth,
The Holy One of Israel!
15: Behold, I will make thee a sharp threshing implement;
A new form of thresher, with teeth in two rows.
Thou shalt thresh mountains, beat them to powder;
Hills shalt thou make like the chaff.
16: Them shalt thou winnow, and the winds scatter,
Them shall the tempest disperse all abroad;
And thou shalt rejoice in Jehovah.
'Tis He who shall be thy sole boast,
The Holy One of Israel!
17: The poor and the needy, when seeking for water,
Their tongue parched with thirst because there is none,
I, even I, Jehovah, will hear them,
The God of Israel will never forsake.
18: Streams will I open, e'en on the bare mountains,
And springs in the midst of the valleys shall flow;
The desert for them will I turn to a basin,
Aye, fountains of waters the dry lands shall be.
19: I'll plant in the desert the cedar, the shittim,
The myrtle, the oil-tree. I'll place in the steppes
The cypress, the plane, and box-tree together.
20: That thus they may see, that thus they may know,
Lay it to heart, understand it together,
That the hand of Jehovah hath wrought it.
'Tis He alone hath created—
The Holy One of Israel!
My reader will note that the three minor sections are clearly divinely marked by the recurrence of the term, "The Holy One of Israel," which comes as the closing word of verses 14, 16 and 20.

The first section (vers. 8-14) opens with three words (as if giving that divine mark to them), used to express ever-intensifying affection, "My servant," "My chosen," "My friend." How precious to us as well as to Israel is that possessive pronoun "My!" Is it not of infinite comfort that we each can say: "I belong to Him; I have cost Him dearly; so I am His property, and He will never fail to take care of that!" What is true of Israel, let me again say, is true of us each as in Christ. We each can say, as in Christ, "I am His servant; even I am a vessel unto honor," His chosen, for did He not say to those representative disciples, "I have chosen you" (John 15:16)? And in that same discourse did He not say, "I have loved you (oh, how dearly), as My friends"? But when a word, warm with divine Love, comes into this chilling world it is ever apt to lose its gracious heat, as this word "friend" has done, and we have to say, alas, that the word "friend" has lost its first love. It is here the climax of affection, appealing for unlimited trust amid the vicissitudes of life. So the derived word philema, translated "kiss," is anything that expresses that affection, as the grasp of the hand will do.

Here then we are introduced to the word that gives character to this part of the book. First, Cyrus is the "servant," then (verse 8) Israel is so owned; but eventually we shall find that Christ is the final Servant of Jehovah carrying out perfectly the "will" that none but He could, as Heb. 10 plainly tells us. But here it is Israel that has that servant place, and is assured in the precise words taken up by the apostle that God has not "cast away" this beloved people.

It is no little comfort to note that it is here "Jacob" who is "chosen," and not "Israel," the "prince with God"; for in our low estate we have a very close relationship with poor Jacob. With all his crookedness and deceitful ways, and thus dependence on divine electing mercy, he is our very brother. How gloriously that unfailing mercy is shown in all that follows here! Is it not a good thing that we are actually "commanded" not to fear, for this is based on the threefold promise of "strengthening, helping, upholding," in verse 10.

But conflict still lies ahead for the remnant here addressed as "Jacob." This also takes three constantly intensifying terms; first, the men of word-fighting, a kind of legal combat, which next comes to blows, and finally literal warfare. Thus this little section has three promises meeting the three threatenings of men, so that it is strongly marked with the number "three." In verses 15-20 we may again note the strong contrast between the character of the final blessing of the earthly and the heavenly people. Both are blessed and both on the same principle of grace, but in how different a way! The former are to "thresh" the nations; the latter are to minister grace, for they are linked with that tree of life, the leaves of which are for "the healing of the nations." Little might we be attracted by the prospect of pursuing fleeing hosts—that is not our calling; that is not the manner of spirit that we are of; but it will perfectly suit Israel as a nation, which will be the exponent of divine government on the earth.8

Mountains are of course figures, and must be so understood, as here picturing the proud of earth. It is only by the aid of such clear Old Testament figures that we are able to interpret the same figures in the New Testament book of prophecy, without going into those extravagancies and absurdities that are so rife today. Let the light then of this figure of mountains (as used for the lofty) be thrown on that one word which has been almost universally misunderstood as referring to some spot on the earth, "Har-mageddon," and how clear and simple does the word, otherwise so mysterious, become. There is no spot on this earth that is called Har-mageddon. It does not exist at all, and so will be searched for in vain. It is true that many seem to think that it is quite permissible to drop and ignore the first part of the word altogether, Har, and assume that the reference is to Megiddo. But the word "Har" in "the Hebrew tongue" (and we are plainly told that this is the key to the interpretation) means "mountain," which in the symbolism of prophecy stands, as a most appropriate figure, for the lofty or proud of the earth, and thus the whole word rendered from the Hebrew tongue tells us of the "gathering together of the troops of the proud." Not only is there no mountain of Megiddo on the earth, but every reference to Megiddo itself always speaks of its lowly position, and so warns us against the popular interpretation. We are compelled to recognize the Har as a sign-word for human pride, and not intended to be literal. Nor is there such a term anywhere in Scripture as the "battle of Armageddon." Such diversions from what is actually written have led, I believe, to complete misunderstanding of the term. The word "Har-mageddon" tells of the gathering together of a people united by pride, and is in contrast to another company who will mourn at "the mourning of Hadadrimmon in the valley of Megiddon" (Zech. 12:11).

Lovely is the picture we have in verses 17 to 20. His people are parched with thirst as they journey through a dry and thirsty land to their home. Blessed it is to thirst when there is a fountain of sweet water nearby to quench that thirst. How blessed to have been truly thirsty when our Lord "stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto Me and drink." It was desert there, even though it was "the great day" of Israel's happiest feast; but He was there, the very Fountain of living waters, and amid those throngs those only were the truly blessed ones who were utterly dissatisfied with all the empty religion, and still thirsted. Nor surely is it less blessed even this day, when we have such promises as, "I will give to him that is athirst of the water of life freely" (Rev. 21:6); for today, when this dispensation has drawn near its end, as had that, we are surrounded by dry, hollow, heartless "religion"; but how little that satisfies the new nature of the true child of God. These thirst, and evidence their divine birth by that thirsting. It is the cool, self-complacent indifference that is filled with danger, for it will have a terrible awakening. But here the picture changes in a moment. Rivers are flowing on the hills, the upper springs pour forth waters, the lower gush refreshment, and fountains are everywhere. What causes such a change? "I, the Lord, will hear; the God of Israel will not forsake." Has He never thus refreshed you in a moment?

Of course the primary application of this prophecy is to Israel, and it is an error, leading to others, to take it away from that nation; but equally sure the same grace that shall make these lovely trees grow to beautify their land, or the desert around it, is active in making the spiritual beauties that correspond with them to grow in another sphere, even in those heavenlies in which are all our blessings in Christ. Were we more skilled in such interpretations, we should enjoy the detailed correspondences of the spiritual with the natural, and find the typical counterpart everywhere; but human ingenuity must not take the place of the teaching of the Holy Spirit, and in our poverty we can only mark what lies on the surface.

Note, then, first the emphatic, "I will plant"—these trees do not grow apart from the direct planting of God. Nor is it any more natural for such trees to grow in the desert than for a proud, overbearing, violent man, as Saul of Tarsus tells us he was, to become lowly, gentle, and to esteem others more highly than himself, for that too speaks of God's planting. So sang the poet Cowper:

I want the grace that Springs from Thee,
That quickens all things where it flows;
That makes a wretched thorn like me,
Bloom as the myrtle or the rose.

Many of us will utter a hearty Amen to that desire.

There are seven different kinds of trees, and as that number, we have learned, is significant of the perfection or completeness that ever characterizes the work of God, the seven here include all forms of arboreal beauty. That seven is divided, as it constantly is, into 4 + 3; nor is there any question but that the four speak of what is external, and carry the beauties of Christ into the world, as did the four sweet spices of the holy ointment; while the three deal with what is more hidden, and for God's eye, as did the three spices that formed the sweet incense. As to the symbolic meaning of the trees in verse 19, whilst their identity is not altogether certain, there can be no question that each tells of some spiritual loveliness. The cedar speaks of majesty, dignity; shittim (of which the ark was in part made) tells of incorruptibility, and, from its use in the prophet Zechariah, the myrtle tells of the lowliness that ever characterizes the true people of God. These may all be said to be blended together by the "oil-tree," a clear figure of the Spirit of God. Nor does this make a literal interpretation impossible. All these interweavings of the Word of God are full of interest to His children who rejoice to discern such marks of His Authorship. Beautiful as is this garden of trees, this quiet paradise, wherein every tree in its whispering leaves, when stirred by the Breath of the Spirit, tells of the Love of God in Christ our Lord, we must go on to the last section of the chapter, verse 21 to the end, in which the utter vanity of idols is exposed.

21: Bring hither your cause, saith Jehovah;
Bring out your proofs, saith Jacob's great King.
22: Bring them forward and show us what shall be,
(Or) let them first show the beginnings,
And we will lay it to heart;
Thus may we learn of its issue,
Or tell us of what is to come.
23: Make known what is to come later,
Then shall we know ye are gods.
Do at least something, or evil or good,
That we may be dumb with amaze
As we behold it together.

(A pause, followed by this indignant outburst)

24: Behold! Ye are but a portion of nothing9
And your work a part of naught!
Abhorred shall he be who makes you his choice!
25: One comes from the north, I have raised him;
From the sunrise he calls on My name.
He treadeth on princes as though they were mire,
As the potter who kneadeth the clay.
26: Who hath declared this from the beginning,
That we might know it?
Who hath foretold it from far away back?
That we may say to him: Right!
Indeed, there was no one declared it!
Indeed, there was no one announced it!
Indeed, none hath heard you utter a word.
27: I was The First who cried unto Zion,
Behold! O behold them!
And to Salem I'll give you one bringing good tidings.
28: I looked all around—there was not a man;
And of these10 not one that gave counsel,
Or when I demanded could answer a word!
29: Look at them all—they are Vanity!
Their very doings—nothing at all!
Their images—wind and confusion!

Note here again how each of the subdivisions of this section is marked out for us by a closing comment on the utter vanity of the idols. Verse 24 (I quote now from the A.V.), "Ye are of nothing"; verse 26, "None heareth your words"; verse 29, which is itself a threefold summing up, "They are all vanity: their works nothing: their molten images wind and confusion." May we not confidently say that a divine Finger has imprinted that number three again on the chapter?

The section opens with a challenge by Jehovah to His rivals, who are but the creatures of His creatures, to enter the lists with Him, and attempt a forecast of things that shall be; but first let them make good their claim to prophetic powers by accounting for the things that are, and tell how they came; then if that bring conviction of its truth, we shall be able to place corresponding confidence in the prophecies of what lies in the future, should they attempt them.

These things were not written for that far-off age alone, but for us on whom the end of the ages has come, and this is a challenge well-adapted to the false science that has taken possession of the masses of Christendom. So we repeat the challenge: Tell us how things began; tell us how this orderly Cosmos came into being in its present beauty; tell us how the worlds were formed; tell us whence came intangible moral qualities, and the reasoning powers of man, and if this is convincing, we will, as in our prophecy, certainly say, "Right!" and then trust you further.

But let our scientists speak. We hear this: "Since there are evident similarities, and gradations in the external forms of all creatures: similarities that can be traced by slight changes back from the anthropoid ape, that bears a very striking external resemblance to man; then to the lower vertebrates; then to the invertebrates; then to the molluscs, and so down to the primordial protoplasmic atom or electron, from which all have been evolved during millions of years, we hold this to be proof enough that everything has come into its present condition by Evolution."

Well, we "set our heart" on it. It leaves us full of questions. It gives no light on the beginnings. It makes matter to be eternal, and, although itself without intelligence, to produce everything that speaks aloud of infinite intelligence! Nor does it account for the introduction of that basic principle, Life, and we ask, What is Life? Was that "primordial protoplasm" alive? Whence did that Life come? We pause for an answer, and as it was in Isaiah's day, the challenge is met, as it was then, by absolute silence, for "indeed there is no one who utters a comprehensible or reasonable word" to this simple but vital question.

If these "Scientists," falsely so-called, are compelled to confess to ignorance to start with, surely we must lose confidence in them as teachers of anything beyond that. But we invite them on our part to "set their heart" to this account: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." That has undeniably the marks of Authority, Dignity, Profundity, Simplicity, and Harmony with truest Reason; in one word, of Divinity. It introduces us to a personal, eternal, omnipotent God, as First Cause, in perfect harmony with subsequent explicit revelation of a Unity in Trinity; to a God far above our reasoning powers to comprehend, which the truest reason confesses to be most reasonable. Yet this very day this contemptible figment of evolution is sweeping away the mass of professing Christians into an apostasy which itself confirms the truth of what it would overthrow, for God has foretold it.

Again, our prophet, as the mouthpiece of Jehovah, speaks as if encouraging the idols to attempt a forecast, and awaits response. But not a word—there is still silence.

Then again He speaks: At least do something, even if it be a bad thing; that were better than nothing. After a pause for an answer, there is another indignant outburst of withering contempt, not merely of the idols themselves, but of any sane man who can make choice of such nullities, as there may well be of any foolish enough to put confidence in a false science, that denies experience, reason, and revelation.

Jehovah Himself now will foretell of the coming of one from the north (Media) and from the sunrise (Persia); and, since he comes "calling on the name of Jehovah," he surely cannot be an adversary to Jehovah's people, but their deliverer, a type of their own Messiah whose coming shall effect their final salvation.

Ever is the "sunrise" the quarter of cheerful hope for the earth, and particularly for Israel with whose fortunes those of the earth are so closely intertwined. It is to the Jew that He shall arise as the "Sun of Righteousness with healing in His wings"; whilst we, as having a heavenly destiny, look for Him in the character of the Sun's forerunner, the "Bright and Morning Star," whose light may cheer the watcher but leave the sleeping world still in darkness. So too it is that people who, when that Sun shall rise upon them, shall be "set on high above all the nations of the earth," "of whom all the nations of the earth shall be afraid"; for they shall be the "head," and "above only" (Deut. 28), and are therefore termed in Rev. 16:12, "the kings of the rising again of the sun";11 nor could a people with such an exalted destiny have a better symbolic name.

Jehovah speaks, in verses 27 to 29, under that Name so filled with significance and claim to essential deity: I am "The First," for there were none before Me; self-existent and eternal, whereever I am seen I must ever be "First." And Jesus comes, and ever is He, too, First; whether in the Virgin's womb, or on the foal of an ass; or in the tomb, or to rise from it, none must precede Him; He must be, even in His earthly path, "The First." When that same One speaks in the book of Revelation, three times He calls Himself "The First."12 In the Old Testament Jehovah is "The First." In the New Testament, Jesus is "The First." Jesus is Jehovah, for there cannot in this same sense be two "firsts."

But what does Jehovah say? To Jerusalem He speaks, and cries: "Look! Behold them! There it is," referring to the fast-approaching salvation; and then He gives to Jerusalem those who repeat that joyful news. What can the foolish confidence that men themselves make do in comparison with that? What has all that men today are substituting for the Cross of Christ, to give? What salvation? What hope? What comfort in sorrow? What light in darkness? What hope in death?

They are all vanity indeed; as empty and dark as chaos before God said, "Let there be light."


Footnotes:

1 Quoted by F.W. Grant in an article, "The Future of Infidelity," 1880.

2 Not the "righteous man," but the quality of righteousness that needs an executor.

3 That is, "making no retrograde step."

4 "Smith" is the word applied to one who works either in wood, metal or stone, and may thus be either a carpenter, smith or mason.

5 "Corners" is the literal rendering, and speaks of extremities.

6 The Heb. aph is clearly intended to give strong emphasis to the promise, but it has too the force of "also." "Language is too contracted to hold all the fulness of divine love" (Delitzsch).

7 The word embodies that idea.

8 It is true that in the Lord's promise to the overcomer in the Church in Laodicea, there are two parts, the first that such shall share with his Lord in the judgment of the proud hosts that are in open warfare with Him. But, as if He knew that "breaking in pieces" was not in itself attractive to the Christian's present "spirit," He adds the gentler, sweeter word: "I will give him the morning star." And in its fulfilment this must come before the other, for not till His people are with Him as the Morning Star are they fitted to be with Him in judging.

9 Lit., "of nothing," but that means, "ye are only a part of nothing, not the whole."

10 "These," i.e., the idols, simply pointing to them as not worth naming.

11 The true interpretation of this scripture, I believe, has been hidden by the translation of the two Greek words anatoloon heeliou by the one word "east." In a book filled with symbols as Revelation, a word so significant as "Sun" should not have been thus omitted altogether; the interpretation depends on it.

12 As chaps. 1:17; 2:8; 22:13. The editors are against its occurrence in chap. 1:11 being genuine.