Tagged: consolation of Israel

Isaiah 41: The Worm and the Machine

Isaiah 41: The Worm and the Machine (audio)

Isaiah 41: The Worm and the Machine (study notes and worksheet / pdf)

Prologue

Where we are:

Part 1: Judgment Part 2: Historical Interlude Part 3: Salvation
Chapters 1-35 Chapters 36-39 Chapters 40-66

When this takes place:

Chapter 41 is part of the second major section of Isaiah and deals less with Judah’s immediate plight than with its future deliverance and the worldwide impact on the coming of Messiah. This chapter may have been written late in the prophet’s life.

Key verses:

Isa. 41:11-13 –Be sure that all who are enraged against you will be ashamed and disgraced; those who contend with you will become as nothing and will perish. You will look for those who contend with you, but you will not find them. Those who war against you will become absolutely nothing. For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand and say to you: Do not fear, I will help you.

Quick summary:

Isaiah foretells the coming of the Persian king Cyrus as God’s instrument of judgment against Babylon. He encourages God’s people, who will be captives of Babylon when this prophecy is fulfilled, not to fear this warrior from the east because the Lord will use him to defeat Israel’s enemies and restore the nation to its former glory.

Take note:

Throughout Isaiah, both the nation of Israel and the coming Messiah are called God’s “servant.” The context helps us determine which “servant” is intended. In Isa. 41:8-9, it is the nation of Israel (see also Isa. 44:1-2, 21; 45:4; 48:20; 49:3). In other passages, the Messiah clearly is in view. For example, Isa. 42:1-9 announces the coming of the Lord’s “Chosen One” who will bring justice to the nations. And in Isa. 52:13 – 53:12 we encounter the Suffering Servant who will be “pierced because of our transgressions” and ultimately exalted – a prophecy wonderfully fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, who died for our sins, rose from the grave and ascended into heaven, where today He is seated at the right hand of the Father awaiting His triumphant return to earth.

Source and Strength (Isa. 41:1-7)

This chapter opens with a courtroom scene. The Lord calls Israel and all the nations before Him to “come together for the trial” (v. 1). The Old Testament is replete with courtroom settings in which the Lord presents His case against the wicked and pronounces judgment. Here, the Lord announces the rise of the Persian king Cyrus, whom God will use to judge the Babylonians, and He calls the idols of the nations to testify (vv. 21-24).

This powerful Persian leader “subdues kings” … “makes [them] like dust [with] his sword” and “like wind-driven stubble [with] his bow” (v. 2). However, it is clear that the Jews are not to fear this conquering king because the Lord has given him his strength and will use him to accomplish His purposes. “The Lord hands nations over to him,” Isaiah declares (v. 2). And if there’s any doubt about God’s sovereignty over human affairs, the Lord challenges His listeners: “Who has performed and done [this], calling the generations from the beginning? I, the Lord …” (v. 4). “A great truth is emphasized here. God controls the course of history and the rise and fall of nations. Even the pagan serves God’s purposes, even though unwittingly. However, you and I have the greatest privilege of all. We can serve God knowingly and gladly” (Lawrence O. Richards, The Bible Readers Companion, electronic ed., S. 431).

If there is any doubt about the sovereignty of God, He assures His people in verse 4, “I, the Lord, am the first, and with the last – I am He.” His declaration of eternal power and presence is repeated in Isa. 44:6 and Rev. 1:8 and is echoed by Jesus’ claims to deity in Rev. 1:17 and 22:13. Those who argue that Jesus is a lesser god, a created being or only a man who existed for a scant three decades face strong opposition from the Son of God Himself in these and other New Testament passages. To cite but a few other examples, Jesus claims to be eternal and uncreated (John 8:58; 17:5); divine (Mark 14:61-62; John 8:24, 58); and co-equal with the Father and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 11:25-27; 12:28; Luke 4:18; 23:34, 46; John 8:16-19, 42; 15:26; 16:13-15). 

Closing out this section, Isaiah mocks the nations that rush to one another for protection against Cyrus. They delve deeper into their idolatrous practices rather than turn to the Lord of Hosts who directs the Persian army for his own glorious purposes. The craftsman and metalworker who wield their tools, using solder and nails to fasten their idols will not be able to keep them from falling beneath the mighty hand of God.

The Consolation of Israel (Isa. 41:8-24)

The Lord now turns His attention back to Israel, whom He calls “My servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, descendant of Abraham, My friend” (v. 8). Even though God is raising the rod of discipline against His chosen ones, He will not forget them or His covenant promises to them. Soon to be exiled in Babylon, they are assured nonetheless that the Lord has chosen them. Like a loving father disciplining an unruly child, He reminds them of His faithful love: “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God. I will strengthen you; I will help you; I will hold on to you with My righteous right hand” (v. 10).

From the endearing title of “servant,” Judah is then called a “worm” (v. 14). “My servant” is an honorable title given to great leaders like Moses (Num. 12:7), David (2 Sam. 3:18) and the Messiah (Isa. 42:1). So why would the Lord refer to His chosen people using such a degrading word as “worm?” Warren Wiersbe observes: “‘Servant’ defined what they were by God’s grace and calling, but ‘worm’ described what they were in themselves. Imagine a worm getting teeth and threshing mountains into dust like chaff! As the nation marched ahead by faith, every mountain and hill would be made low (40:4); and the Lord would turn mountains into molehills!” (Be Comforted, S. Is 41:1). “See,” the Lord says, “I will make you into a sharp threshing board, new, with many teeth. You will thresh mountains and pulverize [them], and make hills like chaff” (v. 15). And when that day comes, what will be the people’s response? “[Y]ou will rejoice in the Lord; you will boast in the Holy One of Israel” (v. 16).

In verses 17-20 the scene changes to a desert being transformed into a garden. This harkens back to the days of wandering in the wilderness and God’s provision for the people’s every need. Six times in these verses the Lord uses the personal pronoun “I” to assure His people that He will act on their behalf: “I, the Lord, will answer them; I, the God of Israel, do not forsake them. I will open rivers on the barren heights, and springs in the middle of the plains. I will turn the desert into a pool of water and dry land into springs of water. I will plant cedars in the desert, acacias, myrtles, and olive trees. I will put cypress trees in the desert, elms and box trees together …” (vv. 17-19). The reason for God’s action is clear: “so that all may see and know, consider and understand, that the hand of the Lord has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it” (v. 20).

Now the scene changes once again, this time to a courtroom. God challenges the nations’ idols to plead their case before His holy bench. Have any of their predictions come true? What do they know about the future? Are they even able to do anything good or evil to prove their power? Of course not. “Look,” the Lord says, “you are nothing and your work is worthless. Anyone who chooses you is detestable” (v. 24).

The Conquests of Cyrus (Isa. 41:25-29)

Verses 25-29 go back over the ground of verses 2-4 but add detail. The north and east are mentioned together, defining Cyrus’ conquests, which will overarch the Babylonian Empire from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian and Black Seas. North and east also describe Cyrus’ lineage and leadership. His father is a Mede and his mother is a Persian. His army consists of Medes, whose country lay north, and Persians, whose country lay east, from Babylon. The one “who invokes My name” (v. 25) is Cyrus, who credits the God of heaven with his victories (Ezra 1:2-3). This does not necessarily prove that Cyrus is a true believer, for in other inscriptions he diplomatically credits the gods of conquered peoples for his triumphs, among them Marduk in Babylon and Sin (the moon god) in Ur.

In contrast with the idols of verses 21-24, God can and does predict the future. Besides describing Cyrus and his conquests long before his birth, the Lord informs the people that a messenger will come, heralding the news that the Jews will be released from captivity and returned to their homeland. The idols, however, “are a delusion; their works are nonexistent; their images are wind and emptiness” (v. 29).

Closing Thought

Matthew Henry comments: “When we are freed from that which hindered our joy, and are blessed with that which is the matter of it, we ought to remember that God is our exceeding joy and in him all our joys must terminate. When we rejoice over our enemies we must rejoice in the Lord, for to him alone we owe our liberties and victories” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, S. Is 41:10).

Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips