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.
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.
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.
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).
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
Where we are:
Part 1: Judgment
Part 2: Historical Interlude
Part 3: Salvation
When this takes place:
Chapter 13 likely takes place at the beginning of Hezekiah’s reign.
Isa. 13:13: Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will shake from its foundations at the wrath of the Lord of Hosts, on the day of His burning anger.
The Lord, who uses Babylon as an instrument of judgment against Judah, will punish the Babylonians for their wickedness. The instrument of God’s wrath will become the object of it.
Isaiah’s warning about the brutality of the Medes raises questions about God’s justice. If God is using the Medes to punish the Babylonian leaders and their army, why does Isaiah warn that the “children will be smashed [to death] … and their wives raped” (v. 16)? We will address this issue in the notes that follow.
Prophecies about Babylon (Isa. 13:1-5)
Isaiah plunges headlong into a description of battle complete with banners, cries, and hand signals. While the immediate context of chapter 13 concerns Babylon, Isaiah seems to foreshadow the day in which God will judge the whole earth (see vv. 6-16). Verse 3 illustrates God’s sovereignty. The Lord speaks of “My chosen ones” and “My warriors” who will “exult in My triumph” and “execute My wrath.” These soldiers are serving God and His purposes, whether they know it or not. As D.A. Carson points out, the reference to these warriors is non-moral and does not seek to describe believers (New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, S. Is 13:1). The “army” of verse 4 is that of Medo-Persian troops under the command of Cyrus, who conquers Babylon in 539 B.C.
It is clear that the Lord of Hosts is in command. Matthew Henry writes:
He raises them, brings them together, puts them in order, reviews them, has an exact account of them in his muster-roll, sees that they be all in their respective posts, and gives them their necessary orders…. All the hosts of war are under the command of the Lord of hosts; and that which makes them truly formidable is that, when they come against Babylon, the Lord comes, and brings them with him as the weapons of his indignation, v. 5. Note, Great princes and armies are but tools in God’s hand, weapons that he is pleased to make use of in doing his work, and it is his wrath that arms them and gives them success (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible : Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, S. Is 13:1).
Judgment on the Day of the Lord (Isa. 13:6-16)
In these 11 verses, Isaiah uses the term “the day of the Lord” twice and the phrase “the day of His burning anger” once. Surely, God will use the Medes to destroy the Babylonians. Yet there is a longer view in mind here – perhaps, as some commentators suggest, a foreshadowing of the tribulation that precedes Christ’s return. “Sometimes when a historical day of the Lord was being described, the writer included some references to future end-time judgment and blessing,” according to Robert B. Hughes and Carl J. Laney. “The events described in 13:10-13 go beyond the historical judgment on Babylon in 539 b.c. and suggest the end-time judgments of the Tribulation” (Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary, S. 262).
But why make Babylon the focus of current and future judgment? Perhaps because Babylon has long been a rallying point of activity against God, beginning with the tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9). Throughout the centuries, as various dynasties ruled that part of the world, it was viewed as a center of animosity toward God. Even in the tribulation, this will be so, although some consider the apostle John’s references to Babylon to be figurative rather than literal (see Rev. 17-18).
But now we come to a most thorny issue: If what is about to happen to Babylon is from the Lord, and if what is to come about at the time of Christ’s return is from the Lord, then how can a loving God act in a way that results in human horror, pain and agony (v. 8)? How can the Day of the Lord be described as “cruel, with rage and burning anger” (v. 9)? How can the children of the wicked be “smashed [to death]” and “their wives raped” (v. 16)?
There are several observations to be made:
- Man is sinful. His heart is “more deceitful than anything else and desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9). All people are sinners (Rom. 3:23).
- Sin has consequences. All human suffering may be traced to the Fall, including suffering as a result of natural disasters (Rom. 8:22). Even more, the “wages of sin is death,” wrote the apostle Paul (Rom. 6:23). Our rebellion against God leads to spiritual and physical death. In the case of Babylon, the wickedness of its rulers would lead to terrible acts of brutality against her women and children at the hands of the Medes and Persians.
- God judges sin. Because He is holy, God does not even look upon sin (Hab. 1:13).
- God’s judgment may be directed against individuals, families, nations and even the whole world.
- God’s judgment takes on many forms. He may act directly, through angels, through human agents, through armies of wicked men, or even through nature itself. In Isaiah 13, God is going to use the Medes and Persians to judge the Babylonians for their arrogance and wicked acts against His people.
- God gives ample time for repentance before He wields judgment. The Amorites had more than 400 years to repent before God destroyed them (Gen. 15:16).
- God takes no pleasure in the death of evil people (Ez. 33:11).
- God judged our sin in His own Son so that we can be forgiven by God’s grace (2 Cor. 5:21).
- Those who reject God’s goodness and persist in evil bring judgment upon themselves.
- The acts of brutality about to be visited upon the Babylonians are the full responsibility of the Medes and Persians, but God will use their sinfulness to bring judgment on the Babylonians.
- God judges from an eternal perspective. All people will stand before Christ in final judgment one day (John 5:28-29). He will reward and punish based on His holiness and knowledge of all things, including the thoughts and intents of the heart. We have every reason to believe that the truly innocent – babies, for example – will be compensated in eternity for what was taken from them in time.
Gary V. Smith writes that the horrors about to befall Babylon – and later, the world – are best understood as “the immoral pit that sin will eventually lead this violent world to wallow in.” He adds: “The picture is more horrible than what anyone can imagine or describe. The earth will be in disarray as the dependable forces of nature will disintegrate and people will turn to a savage form of debased animal existence. Government, respect, civility, kindness, and hope will totally disappear. The vile evil of sin and its horrible consequences will be in full view, but God will finally eradicate it all from the face of the earth” (The New American Commentary: Isaiah 1-39, p. 302).
Babylon Will Fall to the Medes (Isa. 13:17-22)
Isaiah now takes the principle that God will destroy proud sinners on “the day of the Lord” and applies it to the kingdom of Babylon in the near term. The reference to the Medes as God’s instrument of judgment is parallel to God’s use of Assyria to punish the northern kingdom (Isa. 10:5) and His sending Nebuchadnezzar to defeat Judah (Jer. 25:1, 9). In each case, God directs the course of history through His use of powerful armies.
The Medes are described as determined soldiers who cannot be bribed with gold or silver (v. 17). They will ferociously destroy their enemies with “no compassion on little ones” or “pity on children” (v. 18). Isaiah likens the destruction of Babylon to that of Sodom and Gomorrah, which were not rebuilt. Since prophets like Isaiah usually do not know the date of the fulfillment of their prophecies, it’s impossible to know with certainly whether God is speaking through him about Assyria’s defeat of Babylon in 689 B.C. or Babylon’s defeat at the hands of Cyrus, king of the Medes and Persians, in 539 B.C. It is true that following Assyria’s attack in 689 B.C., King Sennacherib tore down Babylon’s walls, flooded the area, depopulated the city, and turned the city into a meadow.
J. Vernon McGee comments: “The future Babylon will become a great center on earth. The man of sin, the willful king, called the Antichrist, will reign in that place. It will be destroyed just as the ancient Babylon was destroyed. Babylon is a memorial to the fact of the accuracy of fulfilled prophecy and a testimony to the fact that God will also judge the future Babylon” (Isaiah: Vol. 1, p. 122).
Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips