William Kelly Major Works Commentary
Keep silence before me, O islands; and let the people renew their strength: let them come near; then let them speak: let us come near together to judgment.Isaiah Chapter 41
This chapter, if it be not a second part the preceding one being the first, is a most appropriate sequel. For Jehovah, having opened His counsels as to Jerusalem and its comfort (after, many vicissitudes and troubles) at His coming in power and glory, turns now to the Gentiles, challenging them to meet Him in judgement. He had there been displayed in His shepherd care over Israel, in His might and wisdom over all, needing no counsellor, and the nations counted less than a cipher and vanity, so that comparison or image was futile, and Israel's unbelief was the more deplorable because of His special goodness to all amongst them who waited on Him. Now He says (v. 1), "Keep silence before me, islands, and let the peoples renew [their] strength: let them come near, then let them speak; let us draw near together to judgement."
Cyrus is meant though not yet named. It is no question of a past name of renown, but of a future deliverer, of whom God knew all: man and his idols could say nothing. Before the prescient eye of the prophet stands the mighty conqueror of Babylon. None but the true God, Who made him the instrument of His designs in providence, had anticipated his rise. Jehovah here describes him, but typically (in the manner of the prophetic Spirit) as the shadow of a greater than Cyrus, Who should for ever overturn the idols of the nations, judge their pride, and deliver the people of Israel from all their dispersions, as well as from the sins which brought them under wrath in the righteous ways of Jehovah. "Who raised up from the east him whom righteousness calleth to its foot? He gave the nations before him, and made [him] rule over kings; he gave [them] as dust to his sword, as driven stubble to his bow. He pursued them, he passed on safely, by a way he had not come with his feet. Who hath wrought and done [it], calling the generations from the beginning? I Jehovah, the first, and with the last; I [am] He" (vv. 2-4).
It is as vain to drag in the gospel of Christ here as in Isa. 40 to interpret Jacob and Israel of Christendom. Nor is the plea at all valid that the Jews will never more meddle with idols. Matthew 12:43; Matthew 24:15, not to speak of the Revelation, are clear evidence confirmatory of Isa. 65-66, and of other passages in the Old Testament, which prove that the end of the age will see a fatal revival of idolatry, the return of the unclean spirit (Matthew 12:43-45) with the full antichristian power of Satan, which will bring down the Assyrian scourge on the Jews and thereon also the Lord's coming in vengeance, when the indignation shall be accomplished, and Jehovah's anger, in the destruction of the foe. The last state of that generation which rejected Christ will then be characterized both by idol worship and the Antichrist; so that, on this score, there is no pretence for turning aside the expostulation, here addressed to the peoples, to the Gentiles that are now baptized, or for interpreting Jacob and Israel of Christendom as some have done who ought to have known better.
Again, it is absurd to say that the gospel could be foreshown by the first one raised up from the east; for, among the Jews, the east was always reckoned from Palestine, never Palestine itself. The Rabbinical idea (strange to say, espoused by Calvin, Hausschein, Piscator, Lowth the younger, Bengel, and stranger still, by the late Mr. Birks) was not so unreasonable: the allusion, they thought, was to Abraham, who was a righteous man called out of Mesopotamia. But this idea fails. For who could think that the patriarch's exceptional sally against the kings of the east who were returning after their successful raid into the valley of the Jordan, or the incidents of Pharaoh and Abimelech, duly answer to the discomfiture of nations and subjugation of kings, making his sword as a column of dust and as the driven stubble his bow in resistless progress? Still less does verse 2 suit the testimony of Christ in the gospel.
The comparison of Isaiah 45:1; Isa 45:13, ought to convince any unbiased thoughtful mind that Cyrus is really in view, but of course ultimately the foreshadowed triumph when Christ comes in His kingdom, putting all enemies under His feet instead of gathering souls out of the world in one body for heaven, as He is now doing by the Holy Ghost's power through the gospel. (Compare also Ezra 1:1-3) If the Babylonish captivity of Judah was the divine chastening of their idolatry by means of the chief patron of idols on earth, the fall of Babylon was a tremendous blow on its own idolatry, predicted as this was by the Jewish prophet long before either event. These were among the reasons which made the first success and the final ruin of Babylon so important in scripture. They were bound up with God's ways in His people. And hence the answer to the infidel sneer touching the silence of prophecy respecting America. What has the discovery or growth of the New World in the far west to do with Israel? From the New Testament again all such matters are excluded, because the rejected Messiah involves not only the disappearance of Israel and the kingdoms of the earth from the foreground, but the calling of the church for glory in the heavenly places as the body and bride of Christ, at least until the corruption of Christendom becomes morally unbearable. For the age ends in the judgement of apostate Jews and Gentiles under the Beast and the false prophet, when Christ and His glorified saints appear from heaven, and the godly remnant of Jews here below will become a strong nation, the earthly centre of His kingdom under the whole heaven.
Hence the suitability here of confronting in this very connection "Jehovah, the first, and with the last," the One Who had wrought and spoken. Why were the gods of the nations silent and powerless? why were the boasted oracles dumb? If the fall of Judah, moral necessity as it was (unless Jehovah must sanction His own dishonour in the midst of His people, and sustain them to give His glory to a graven image), made His power questionable in a Gentile's eyes, let them learn in the downfall of Babylon, which the Jews alone knew generations beforehand, even to the name and race of him who was its instrument, that His righteousness and wisdom were no less than His power, and that the chastised Jews were the people of His choice. "The isles saw [it] and feared; the ends of the earth were afraid, drew near, and came. They helped every one his neighbour, and [each] said to his brother, Be of good courage. So the carpenter encouraged the founder, he that smootheth [with] the hammer him that smiteth on the anvil, saying of the soldering, [it is] good: and he fasteneth it with nails, [that] it be not moved. But thou, Israel, my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend, whom I have grasped from the ends of the earth, and called from its corners (or, nobles), and said unto thee, Thou [art] my servant; I have chosen thee, and not rejected thee. Fear not, for I [am] with thee; be not dismayed, for I [am] thy God. I will strengthen thee, yea, I will help thee, yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness" (vv. 5-10).
The honour to which Cyrus was called by the way was no change in His purposes or affections respecting Israel. Not Cyrus but Israel was His servant. "Behold, all they that are incensed against thee shall be ashamed and confounded: they that strive with thee shall be as nothing, and shall perish. Thou shalt seek them, and shalt not find them, - them that contend with thee. They that war against thee shall be as nothing, and as a thing of naught. For I Jehovah thy God will hold thy right hand, saying unto thee, Fear not, I will help thee. Fear not, thou worm Jacob, ye few men of Israel; I will help thee, saith Jehovah, and thy Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel. Behold, I have made thee a new sharp threshing instrument having teeth: thou shalt thresh and beat small the mountains, and shalt make the hills as chaff. Thou shalt fan them, and the wind shall carry them away, and the whirlwind shall scatter them: and thou shalt rejoice in Jehovah, thou shalt glory in the Holy One of Israel" (vv. 11-16).
These last words, however, render it beyond just doubt that the prophet carries his eye far beyond the immediate occasion, and presents, not the condition of the Jews under their Persian or other Gentile lords, but days still future when Israel shall take them captive whose captives they were, and shall rule over their oppressors. It is impossible to apply to the same period the prophetic description here and Nehemiah's language: "Behold, we [are] servants this day, and [for] the land that thou gavest unto our fathers to eat the fruit thereof and the good thereof, behold, we [are] servants in it; and it yieldeth much increase unto the kings whom thou hast set over us because of our sins: also they have dominion over our bodies, and over our cattle, at their pleasure, and we [are] in great distress" (Nehemiah 9:36-37). Here the word is in manifest contrast, and in figurative language, no doubt; but it prefigures neither servitude, nor the grace of the gospel, but triumph when the true Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings, and Israel shall flourish and tread down the wicked in the day that shall burn all the proud and lawless as an oven.
The Maccabean or the apostolic triumphs of Vitringa and others are a burlesque on a sound interpretation. Not only must we leave room for the future, but for a total change from the character of God's actual working in and by the church. Now it is grace building living stones on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner-stone; then it will be the awful descent of the Stone cut without hands on the statue of Gentile empire in its last phase, which leads to, as it corresponds with, the judicial functions of Israel here described in "that great day" of the future.
Not that refreshment will fail from Jehovah for Israel. "The afflicted and the needy seek water, and [there is] none; their tongue faileth for thirst: I Jehovah will hear them, [I] the God of Israel will not forsake them. I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness into a pool of water, and the dry lands into water-springs. I will give in the wilderness the cedar, acacia, and myrtle, and oleaster; I will set in the desert the cypress, pine (or, plane), and box-tree together; that they may see and know and consider and understand together, that the hand of Jehovah hath done this, and the Holy One of Israel hath created it" (vv. 17-20).
Jehovah then recurs to a renewal of His challenge to the Gentiles and their idols, but in terms of justly increased contempt for their trust in a thing of naught, again grounding His appeal on their ignorance of the scourge of idolatry who should come from the north and east. "Produce your cause, saith Jehovah; bring forth your strong [reasons] saith the King of Jacob. Let them bring [them] forth and show us what shall happen: show the former things, what they [be], that we may pay heed to them, and know their issue; or declare us things to come. Show the things that are to come hereafter, that we may know that ye [are] gods; yea, do good, or do evil, that we may be dismayed, and behold [it] together. Behold, ye [are] of nothing, and your work of naught: an abomination [is he that] chooseth you. I have raised up [one] from the north, and he shall come; from the rising of the sun will he call upon my name: and he shall come upon princes as [upon] mortar, and as the potter treadeth clay. Who hath declared [it] from the beginning, that we may know? and beforetime, that we may say, Right? Indeed there is none that declareth, indeed there is none that showeth, indeed there is none that heareth your words. The first [I say] to Zion, Behold, behold them; and to Jerusalem I will give one that bringeth good tidings. For I look, and there is no man; even among them, and there is no counsellor, that, when I ask of them, can answer a word" (vv. 21-28). The oracles are dumb, even reason abashed - nothing but insensate folly is in men owning as gods things which could neither speak nor hear. "Behold, they [are] all vanity: their works [are] naught: their molten images [are] wind and confusion" (v. 29). Human helps to devotion are the death-bed of faith. Man by his devices, now as of old, only succeeds in shutting himself out from the living God; and the mercy He reveals in His word, as well as His judgements, are sealed up in the darkness of unbelief. Prophecy is the truest and most permanent witness of the true God, till His power overwhelm those that dispute it and dishonour Him. Hence the gravity of the present scepticism in Christendom which will issue in "the falling away" or apostasy (2 Thessalonians 2:3).
Who raised up the righteous man from the east, called him to his foot, gave the nations before him, and made him rule over kings? he gave them as the dust to his sword, and as driven stubble to his bow.
He pursued them, and passed safely; even by the way that he had not gone with his feet.
Who hath wrought and done it, calling the generations from the beginning? I the LORD, the first, and with the last; I am he.
The isles saw it, and feared; the ends of the earth were afraid, drew near, and came.
They helped every one his neighbour; and every one said to his brother, Be of good courage.
So the carpenter encouraged the goldsmith, and he that smootheth with the hammer him that smote the anvil, saying, It is ready for the sodering: and he fastened it with nails, that it should not be moved.
But thou, Israel, art my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend.
Thou whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, and called thee from the chief men thereof, and said unto thee, Thou art my servant; I have chosen thee, and not cast thee away.
Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.
Behold, all they that were incensed against thee shall be ashamed and confounded: they shall be as nothing; and they that strive with thee shall perish.
Thou shalt seek them, and shalt not find them, even them that contended with thee: they that war against thee shall be as nothing, and as a thing of nought.
For I the LORD thy God will hold thy right hand, saying unto thee, Fear not; I will help thee.
Fear not, thou worm Jacob, and ye men of Israel; I will help thee, saith the LORD, and thy redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.
Behold, I will make thee a new sharp threshing instrument having teeth: thou shalt thresh the mountains, and beat them small, and shalt make the hills as chaff.
Thou shalt fan them, and the wind shall carry them away, and the whirlwind shall scatter them: and thou shalt rejoice in the LORD, and shalt glory in the Holy One of Israel.
When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the LORD will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them.
I will open rivers in high places, 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, the shittah tree, and the myrtle, and the oil tree; I will set in the desert the fir 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 hath done this, and the Holy One of Israel hath created it.
Produce your cause, saith the LORD; bring forth your strong reasons, saith the King of Jacob.
Let them bring them forth, and shew us what shall happen: let them shew the former things, what they be, that we may consider them, and know the latter end of them; or declare us things for to come.
Shew the things that are to come hereafter, that we may know that ye are gods: yea, do good, or do evil, that we may be dismayed, and behold it together.
Behold, ye are of nothing, and your work of nought: an abomination is he that chooseth you.
I have raised up one from the north, and he shall come: from the rising of the sun shall he call upon my name: and he shall come upon princes as upon morter, and as the potter treadeth clay.
Who hath declared from the beginning, that we may know? and beforetime, that we may say, He is righteous? yea, there is none that sheweth, yea, there is none that declareth, yea, there is none that heareth your words.
The first shall say to Zion, Behold, behold them: and I will give to Jerusalem one that bringeth good tidings.
For I beheld, and there was no man; even among them, and there was no counseller, that, when I asked of them, could answer a word.
Behold, they are all vanity; their works are nothing: their molten images are wind and confusion.