Isaiah 41 – Fear Not
A. The glory of God over the coastlands.
1. (1) A command and an invitation to the coastlands.
Keep silence before Me, O coastlands, and let the people renew their strength! Let them come near, then let them speak; let us come near together for judgment.
a. Keep silence before Me, O coastlands: The Hebrew word translated coastlands is also translated islands or isles in other passages, such as Isaiah 11:11 and 40:15. It is also translated with broader words like territory in passages like Isaiah 20:6. The idea is probably best expressed as “distant lands.” Here, God is calling to all nations – even the “distant lands” – to keep silence before Him. Why? Because they are coming to God’s courtroom: Let us come near together for judgment.
i. Bultema on coastlands: “a poetic name for the idolatrous distant nations.” Motyer: “Isaiah uses the word [coastlands] as shorthand for the far reaches of the earth.”
b. And let the people renew their strength! Isaiah 40:31 has just promised that those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength. But here, God advises the people – those in the distant lands, who do not know Him – to renew their strength as they come into His courtroom. If you are going to contest with God, you had better be prepared!
i. The problem is that while those who wait upon the Lord have the Lord’s limitless strength, those from distant lands have no god of strength to help them. “The repetition of the phrase ‘renew their strength’ (cf. 40:31) may well be ironic. Perhaps as the exiles renew their strength in the true God, so the nations are ironically exhorted to do the same – but in their man-made deities!” (Grogan)
c. Let them come near, then let them speak: God will allow the idol worshippers of all the world come before Him and justify their idolatry. They will have the opportunity to speak, though they must enter His courtroom in silence, out of respect of His majesty.
i. There are many different reasons for silence. There is the silence of shame, the silence of attention, the silence of submission. Any one of these is good reason to initially be silent in the Lord’s presence.
2. (2-4) God reasons with the coastlands.
Who raised up one from the east? Who in righteousness called him to His feet? Who gave the nations before him, and made him rule over kings? Who gave them as the dust to his sword, as driven stubble to his bow? Who pursued them, and passed safely by the way that he had not gone with his feet? Who has performed and done it, calling the generations from the beginning? I, the Lord, am the first; and with the last I am He.
a. Who raised up the one from the east? God questions the idolaters from the distant lands, and asks them who authored this important event in human history – who raised up the one from the east?
i. Commentators warmly debate the identity of this one from the east. Most believe him to be either Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish people and the father of the faithful, or Cyrus, the king who joined the Medes and the Persians into a fighting force which conquered Babylon – which, prophetically, is the broad time context Isaiah speaks to.
ii. Wolf speaks for those who believe Cyrus is spoken of: “Born east of Babylon in what is now Iran, Cyrus would move through country after country, conquering every king in his path. Shortly after 550 b.c., Cyrus was able to unify the Medes and the Persians and to defeat the powerful kingdom of Lydia in Asia Minor. Then he turned south to conquer Babylon (539 b.c.).” Bultema adds regarding Cyrus: “Both secular and sacred documents present him as righteous and good, and he can be called righteous or, as the text actually has it, justice, especially since he carried out the righteous acts of vengeance on Babylon and that of the deliverance of Israel.”
iii. Clarke speaks for those who believe Abraham is the one from the east: “Some explain it of Abraham, others of Cyrus. I rather think that the former is meant; because of the character of the righteous man, or righteousness, agrees better with Abraham than with Cyrus.”
iv. Who is it? It’s a tough call, and either answer can be correct according to the context. On balance, it is best to see the one from the east as Abraham, because of the word of the Lord later in the chapter, in Isaiah 41:22: Let them bring forth and show us what will happen; let them show the former things, what they were. God appeals to idols and their worshippers, and asks them to tell both the future and the past. Since Cyrus is mentioned in Isaiah 41:25 (I have raised up one from the north . . . from the rising of the sun), he is the figure that shows God’s knowledge of the future. Abraham is the figure that shows God’s knowledge of the past. Past and future – with the present sandwiched in-between – all belong to the Lord our God.
b. Who . . . Who . . . Who: As God invites those in distant lands to come and reason with Him, He shows them His greatness over all creation, and over all history. They must ask themselves, “Who is in control of the course of human events?” Who has performed and done it, calling the generations from the beginning?
i. This is always a relevant question. Is there a point, a direction to human history? Is it just a random, meaningless combination of undirected events? Is it a cycle, fated to repeat itself endlessly? Or, is there a God in heaven who directs human events, always moving to a final resolution and fulfillment? Our answer to this question influences almost everything in our lives.
c. I, the Lord, am the first; and with the last I am He: Here, the Lord God of Israel declares that Hehas performed and done it, calling the generations from the beginning. He lifts up and puts down kings and nations. He is the first and He is the last; He is the “bookend” both before and after the saga of human history, starting the story, ending the story, and keeping the whole story together.
i. If God is both the first and the last, then He also has authority over everything in-between. This means that there absolutely is a plan of God for human history, and He directs the path of human events toward His designed fulfillment. Our lives are not given over to blind fate, to random meaninglessness, or to endless cycles with no resolution. Instead, the Lord God who is the first and the last directs all of human history and even our individual lives.
ii. Jesus takes the same title of the First and the Last in Revelation 1:17 and 22:13. If the Lord is the first and the last according to Isaiah 41:4, and if Jesus is the First and the Last according to Revelation 1:17 and 22:13, since there cannot be two firsts or two lasts, Jesus must be the Lord God!
3. (5-7) The reaction of the coastlands.
The coastlands saw it and feared, the ends of the earth were afraid; they drew near and came. Everyone helped his neighbor, and said to his brother, “Be of good courage!” So the craftsman encouraged the goldsmith; he who smooths with the hammer inspired him who strikes the anvil, saying, “It is ready for the soldering”; then he fastened it with pegs, that it might not totter.
a. The coastlands saw it and feared: When they met this God of all authority and power, they feared. They were brought so low by this encounter with God that they had to encourage one another to go on! (Everyone helped his neighbor, and said to his brother, “Be of good courage!”)
i. This is a logical reaction. It is the same kind of reaction Peter had when he saw the great power of Jesus (Luke 5:8).
b. So the craftsman encouraged the goldsmith: What did they do with the fear they felt after their encounter with God? They let the fear drive them away from the true God. Instead of surrendering to this God of glory and majesty and power, they turned from God, and made for themselves gods, idols of gold!
i. Isaiah pours on the irony. It took a lot of work to make a good god. It took skilled workers (the craftsman . . . the goldsmith . . . he who smooths with the hammer . . . him who strikes the anvil). It took organization and teamwork (“It is ready for the soldering”). If you don’t do it right, your god might not be able to stand up! (That it might not totter.)
ii. People still see something of God’s power and glory, reject it, and then make their own god. This is Paul’s whole message in Romans 1:18-25.
B. God encourages Israel.
1. (8-9) Israel is different from those in the distant lands.
But you, Israel, are My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the descendants of Abraham My friend. You whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest regions, and said to you, “You are My servant, I have chosen you and have not cast you away.”
a. But you, Israel, are My servant: In contrast to the God-rejecting and idol-making people in distant lands, Israel – remember the name means, “Governed by God” – Israel is the servant of the Lord.
i. A servant of God would never make God into his own image, his own idea of what God should be. Servants don’t tell their masters what to do, or what to be. Servants know who the master is and who the servant is.
ii. “Israel is twice addressed as servant (literally ‘slave’), that is to say a person without position or rights – but this servant belongs to a great master.” (Motyer)
b. Jacob, whom I have chosen: Lest Israel become proud, God pops their swelling quickly. If they are Israel – “Governed by God” – then they are also Jacob – “Conniving, untrustworthy con-man.” They are only the servant of God because He has chosen them.
c. The descendants of Abraham My friend: Israel stood in this place because of their family relationship to Abraham. Since Abraham was the friend of God, so his descendants had a special place before God also.
i. Jehoshaphat knew that Abraham was the friend of God (2 Chronicles 20:7). James knew that Abraham was the friend of God (James 2:23). We are also the friends of God, not because of our relation to Abraham, but because of our relation to the Son of God, Jesus. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you. (John 15:14-15)
d. You whom I have taken from the ends of the earth . . . And said to you, “You are my servant, I have chosen you and have not cast you away”: Again, Israel’s special place before God is because of God’s initiative, not because of Israel achievement. Israel is different from the idol-makers in distant lands because of God’s work in them, not because of their own greatness.
2. (10-13) Fear not, for God’s help is present.
Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand. Behold, all those who were incensed against you shall be ashamed and disgraced; they shall be as nothing, and those who strive with you shall perish. You shall seek them and not find them; those who contended with you. Those who war against you shall be as nothing, as a nonexistent thing. For I, the Lord your God, will hold your right hand, saying to you, “Fear not, I will help you.”
a. Fear not, for I am with you: This is both a command and a promise. Israel is commanded to fear not. Fear, worry, and anxiety are often sin. When the God who rules over the nations as described in Isaiah 41:2-4, the God who chose us and loves us as described in Isaiah 41:8-9, when that God tell us fear not, we must take it seriously! But there is also a promise. We fear not, because the Lord has told us, I am with you. What more do we need? If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31)
i. How much more prone to fear and discouragement we are when we are alone. But we are never alone, because God has declared, fear not, for I am with you.
b. Be not dismayed, for I am your God: “Remember Me? The God of all power and glory? I’m that one. I am your God.” Years ago, J.B. Phillips wrote a wonderful book titled, Your God is too Small. In it, he showed how when people forget the greatness of God, they easily become dismayed. But God says, be not dismayed, for I am your God.
c. I will strengthen you, Yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand: God’s strength and glory make Him able to help us. But it is His love that makes Him say, “I will help you.”
i. Idols must be fastened . . . with pegs, so they might not totter (Isaiah 41:7). You have to hold them up. But God holds us up; I will uphold you with My righteous right hand. You should never have a God that you have to hold up!
ii. Knowing this, do we see the terrible nature of our fear and unbelief? They say to God, “You are not with me. You are not the God of glory and might. You do not really love me.”
iii. “Every truthful man feels that he has a right to be believed. He speaks upon the honor of an honest man, and if you say, ‘I cannot believe you,’ and even begin to lament that you have no faith in him, the reflection is not upon yourself, but on the person whom you cannot believe. And shall it ever come to this, that God’s own children shall say that they cannot believe their God? Oh, sin of sins! It takes away the very Godhead from God, for if God be not true, he is not a God; and if he be not fit to be believed, neither is he fit to be adored, for a God whom you cannot trust you cannot worship.” (Spurgeon)
d. Behold, all those who were incensed against you shall be ashamed and disgraced: God will deal with our enemies, if we keep our trust in Him. He knows how to make our adversaries – whether they be men or devils – ashamed and disgraced.
i. Behold, all those who were incensed against you shall be ashamed and disgraced is, in part, an outworking of God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3: I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you. God has always crushed anti-Semitic nations and movements, and in the reign of the Messiah, He will crush them completely.
e. For I, the Lord your God, will hold your right hand, saying to you, “Fear not, I will help you.” In Isaiah 41:10, God promised to uphold you with My righteous right hand. That was God’s hand holding us up. Now, we see God’s hand holding our right hand, and giving us strength over fear, doubt, and our adversaries.
3. (14-16) Fear not, with God’s help, no obstacle is too great.
“Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel! I will help you,” says the Lord and your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel. “Behold, I will make you into a new threshing sledge with sharp teeth; you shall thresh the mountains and beat them small, and make the hills like chaff. You shall winnow them, the wind shall carry them away, and the whirlwind shall scatter them; you shall rejoice in the Lord, and glory in the Holy One of Israel.”
a. Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel! The idea of a worm is connected to the name Jacob, but the idea of men is connected with the name Israel.
i. “In the rabbinical commentary on the five books of Moses, Yelamedenu is asked, Why are the Israelites called a worm? To signify, that as the work does not smite, that is, gnaw the cedars, but with its mouth, which is very tender, yet it nevertheless destroys the hard wood; so all the strength of the Israelites is in prayer, by which they smite the wicked of this world, though strong like cedars, to which they are compared.” (Clarke)
ii. “The name Jacob, as applied to Israel here, always points back to Israel’s lowly and deceitful past, so that it is by no means an honor.” (Bultema)
b. And your Redeemer: “Redeemer is goel, see Isaiah 35:10, the Next-of-Kin who takes upon himself his people’s needs as if they were his own.”
c. Behold, I will make you into a new threshing sledge with sharp teeth; you shall thresh the mountains and beat them small: God so helps Israel, so empowers them, that they are able to cut down mountains as if they were a great threshing machine, removing mountains and seeing their dust blown away. The point is clear: nothing, not even a mountain, will stand in their way when God helps them.
i. “I don’t know of any other than the Creator Himself who can take a weak worm and make it sharp with teeth! God can do that.” (Redpath)
ii. Jesus expressed the same idea in Matthew 17:20: If you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.
d. You shall rejoice in the Lord, and glory in the Holy One of Israel: When we overcome great obstacles with the help of the Lord, we know it is His work. We rejoice in the Lord, not in ourselves. We glory in the Holy One of Israel, not in ourselves.
4. (17-20) Fear not, God has abundant resources.
The poor and needy seek water, but there is none, their tongues fail for thirst. I, the Lord, will hear them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them. I will open rivers in desolate heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water. I will plant in the wilderness the cedar and the acacia tree, the myrtle and the oil tree; I will set in the desert the cypress tree and the pine And the box tree together, that they may see and know, and consider and understand together, that the hand of the Lord has done this, and the Holy One of Israel has created it.
a. I will open rivers in desolate heights: In response to the cry of the poor and needy, those whose tongues fail for thirst, God sends miraculous supplies of water to them. God has resources and supplies we know nothing about, and He loves to supply us from His hidden resources.
b. I will plant in the wilderness the cedar and the acacia tree: God will also make barren places fruitful, and full of beautiful forests. God can take the most barren wilderness, and make it a forest.
i. “Water and shade are the two great needs of the desert traveller . . . None of the trees mentioned are fruit trees: the point is shelter, not sustenance.” (Motyer)
c. When it all takes place, everyone knows: That the hand of the Lord has done this, and the Holy One of Israel has created it. Miraculous supplies of water and forests in the wilderness are impossible without God, so He gets the glory when the work is done.
C. Idolatry on trial.
1. (21) God calls idols and their worshippers to trial.
“Present your case,” says the Lord. “Bring forth your strong reasons,” says the King of Jacob.
a. Present your case: God is fair. He will not condemn idols, the false gods of the nations, and those who worship them, without a fair trial. So He invites these idols and their worshippers to come and present your case. “Let’s hear your side of the story.” Bring forth your strong reasons. “Let’s hear your best arguments.”
b. Says the King of Jacob: This is the only place in the Bible where God uses this title. King of Jacob is used only here, but the title king of Israel is used 138 times in the Bible, mostly of men, but of the Lord God in Isaiah 44:6 and Zephaniah 3:15, and of Jesus in John 1:49 and 12:13.
2. (22-24) God examines the defendants – idols and their worshippers – at the trial.
Let them bring forth and show us what will happen; let them show the former things, what they were, that we may consider them, and know the latter end of them; or declare to us things to come. Show the things that are to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods; yes, do good or do evil, that we may be dismayed and see it together. Indeed you are nothing, and your work is nothing; he who chooses you is an abomination.
a. God invited idols to present your case in Isaiah 41:21. But none is presented; the next words are God’s questioning of the idols. Why don’t the idols present their case and defend themselves? Because they are dumb statues that can’t speak! So the questioning moves on, and God examines the defendants.
b. Let them bring forth and show us what will happen: If these idols really are gods, then they certainly know the future and the past. Then let them speak up. Show us what will happen. Then, let them show the former things, what they were. Gods know these things, don’t they? Do it that we may know that you are gods.
c. Yes, do good or do evil: It is as if God stands in a courtroom, questioning a thousands idols of different sizes and designs, and finally cries out, “Do something!Do good or do evil! Can’t you do anything?”
d. But they can not do anything. So, the accusation is made based upon the evidence: Indeed you are nothing, and your work is nothing; he who chooses you is an abomination.
i. Today, idolatry is still an abomination. Though few bow down to statues, many still fashion a god of their own opinion, and decide that is the god they will respect. Even many churchgoers do this today. “The spiritual conflict experienced today is exactly of the same nature and of the same character as you find depicted here. The issue is still unsettled in the minds of men, though it is settled eternally in the mind of God. The world is still making every effort to put the best possible show upon its worship of the creature rather than the Creator. Its worship is more the patronizing of the shell of religion than bowing in submission before an empty cross, and occupied throne, and the King of kings in glory.” (Redpath)
e. Indeed, you are nothing, and your work is nothing: Paul quotes this idea in 1 Corinthians 8:4, when he writes, Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one.
3. (25-29) The Lord’s summation: Idols are worthless and man is so limited.
I have raised up one from the north, and he shall come; from the rising of the sun he shall call on My name; and he shall come against princes as though mortar, as the potter treads clay. Who has declared from the beginning, that we may know? And former times, that we may say, “He is righteous”? Surely there is no one who shows, surely there is no one who declares, surely there is no one who hears your words. The first time I said to Zion, “Look, there they are!” And I will give to Jerusalem one who brings good tidings. For I looked, and there was no man; I looked among them, but there was no counselor, who, when I asked of them, could answer a word. Indeed they are all worthless; their works are nothing; their molded images are wind and confusion.
a. I have raised up one from the north, and he shall come: In contrast to the idols who can tell nothing of the future, the Lord knows. He knows that He will bring Cyrus from the north to conquer the Babylonians, who conquered Judah and Jerusalem and took them captive. God would use Cyrus to allow the Jews in exile to return (Ezra 1).
i. “Cyrus had the greatest respect for Jehovah, as we can read in his proclamation concerning the freeing of Israel in Ezra one. In it he states correctly that Jehovah had given him all the kingdoms of the earth.” (Bultema)
ii. “The ‘north’ is included because the Persians conquered the lands north of Babylon before invading her borders.” (Wolf)
b. Who has declared from the beginning, that we may know? Not the idols; they know nothing. Not man, for I looked, and there was no man . . . Who, when I asked of them, could answer a word.
c. Finally, the verdict is read at the trial: Indeed they are all worthless; their works are nothing. Apart from God, in the grand scheme of things, all of the greatness of man is worthless and all the great works are nothing. And what of the idols? Their molded images are wind and confusion.
d. “This chapter is the great I WILL chapter of the Bible. No fewer than fourteen times in the scope of these verses does God reinforce His authority with the promise, ‘I will.’” (Redpath)
i. Look at them all:
· I will strengthen you. (Isaiah 41:10)
· I will help you. (Isaiah 41:10, 13, and 14)
· I will uphold you with My righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)
· I will make you into a new threshing sledge with sharp teeth. (Isaiah 41:15)
· I will open rivers in desolate heights. (Isaiah 41:18)
· I will make the wilderness a pool of water. (Isaiah 41:18)
· I will plant in the wilderness the cedar and the acacia tree. (Isaiah 41:19)
· I will set in the desert the cypress tree. (Isaiah 41:19)
· I will give to Jerusalem one who brings good tidings. (Isaiah 41:27)
ii. What a contrast with Isaiah 14 – the “I will” chapter of Satan! Look at the “I wills” of Satan:
· I will ascend into heaven. (Isaiah 14:13)
· I will exalt my throne above the stars of God. (Isaiah 14:13)
· I will also sit on the mount of the congregation. (Isaiah 14:13)
· I will ascend above the heights of the clouds. (Isaiah 14:14)
· I will be like the Most High. (Isaiah 14:14)
iii. The “I wills” of Satan were all proud and self-directed. Every “I will” of the Lord in Isaiah 41 is for the benefit and blessing of His people. Though Satan was lifted up in pride, and proclaimed his “I wills,” none of them came to pass. But each and every one of God’s “I will’s” will happen!
iv. “When God says, ‘I will,’ He says it with all the authority of omnipotence. He has foreseen every difficulty. He has studied every obstacle which may come in His way. He has anticipated every possible contingency. He knows the weakness of the one to whom He makes His promise, and yet He says, ‘I will!’” (Redpath)
© 2001 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission