Isaiah 41: In the Courtroom
Updated: May 31
In chapter 40, Isaiah gave testimony about the sovereign God. In chapter 41, God speaks for Himself. From a celestial courtroom, He calls the nations and their idols to appear before Him, to settle just who is responsible for what. And, as in all of His speaking, He speaks with His children in mind.
The birth of the nation of Israel had been like none other. Earthly nations are formed when the people of a region unite, but the people of Israel had a name before they ever had a land. Abraham left Ur when he heard a god he didn’t known say, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to a land I will show you (Genesis 12:1).” When he and his family arrived in the land at the end of God’s leading, God said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” And because Abraham believed Him, the nation of Israel was birthed.
Throughout the generations, no matter how far their hearts wandered from God, Israel’s identity was wrapped up in the land He had given them. They knew they were there for a purpose though they’d forgotten what it was. When they were carried away and the land lay empty, they lost their national identity.
Now they were subjects in an empire where their god was just one among many. They kept some of their traditions alive, more likely out of habit than devotion, but without a tangible piece of real estate to hold on to, most let go of Yahweh’s seemingly impossible promises. Now living in a land of plenty, they were surrounded by gods who seemed to provide what their god had not.
So, in an effort to remind His people who they were and why they were chosen, the God of Israel addressed the seemingly victorious nations and their seemingly powerful idols. He called them all to His courtroom to present their evidence, but first He had some questions.
Who is it stirring up the nations? Who gives conquerors the power to subdue and destroy? Rhetorical questions, no doubt, but before they could answer, He gave them the verdict: He’d called up a servant to help Him set the world in order. That servant would fulfill God’s righteous purpose, and the ability he’d have would be amazing. “And who do you suppose is responsible for all of this?” God asks, and then answers “I, the Lord—with the first of them and with the last—I am he (verse 4).” In other words, “Remember the upheavals there have been in the past? That was Me.”
Then He begins speaking of the future as if it were the present, and those listening were probably as confused as I. But this is the book of Isaiah, remember, and nobody said it was easy.
First, God speaks to some “islands” who are watching. Commentators say He’s addressing Egypt and Mesopotamia—not islands on my maps by any means—but the bottom line is the same: all of the earth is trembling.
His announcement that someone is on the way has an interesting effect on those watching. With the bravado of a teenage boy before his first thrashing, the enemies of Israel stand up straight and tall as they see the one from the east approaching. Knees knocking, they encourage one another: “Have courage, and for our gods’ name, get busy and build us some idols! And make sure they won’t topple over. Remember what happened to Dagon?” (I Samuel 5:1-4) Their only hope is in the things they can make, but God’s chosen can hope in the One who made them.
In verses 8 and 9, Israel’s Maker reminds them of not just who He is, but of who He had made them to be. He calls them by several names:
Israel, my servant: They’d been given the task of telling the world who He was, what He’d said, and what He’d done (Deuteronomy 4:6-8).
Jacob, His chosen: He’d chosen Jacob the Swindler over Esau the Red (Genesis 25:24-26). (If you’ve read chapters 25-27 you know that Jacob did more than hold onto Esau’s heel.) It doesn’t make sense to the self-righteous mind, but what seems like God’s mistake is really God’s reminder: “I get to choose. And I usually choose the one who needs Me most to do the task that needs doing.” And so brother Jacob was chosen.
But Jacob wasn’t chosen out of the mass of mankind. He was a descendant of Abraham, God’s friend, and that friendship had been the start of it all. A man willing to risk all he had to answer the call of a god he didn’t know was rewarded with the honor of being God’s friend. It’s because of him that all nations will be blessed.
So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand (verse 10).
Though you search for your enemies, you will not find them (verse 12).
We have evidence that some of this has yet to be fulfilled. I present you Exhibit A: the May 11, 2021, newspaper. That being established, it’s clear that we’ve moved into a portion of the prophecy that has its fulfillment somewhere in our future.
“For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you (verse 13).”
We could argue all day about who’s right and who’s wrong in the ongoing Middle East struggle. But like it or not, believe it or not, God will take the hand of His chosen and lead them through the mess, victorious. (The victory, by the way, will be His and not theirs.)
”Do not be afraid, you worm Jacob, little Israel, do not fear, for I myself will help you,” declares the Lord (verse 14).
After reading about Jacob’s slippery start, we might think we understand why God likens his descendants to a worm. But He’s really not insulting them. A worm isn’t icky or evil, a worm is just weak. No backbone. The label “little Israel” is easier to understand. God is speaking to a land the size of New Hampshire that’s surrounded by powerful giants. He assures them that despite their small size and lack of strength, they have the most powerful ally there is, and with His help, they'll become so much more.
“See, I will make you into a threshing sledge, new and sharp, with many teeth. You will thresh the mountains and crush them, and reduce the hills to chaff.
You will winnow them, the wind will pick them up, and a gale will blow them away (verse 15-16).”
When wheat is threshed, the kernel is separated from the chaff when it’s thrown into the air. Over and over again the farmer throws it up so the worthless chaff will be blown away. So it will be with God’s valuable seed. A lot of shaking, a lot of beating, but all that surrounds it will be gone with the wind. God’s precious seed, the remnant of Israel, will be saved in the storehouse of God.
”But you will rejoice in the Lord and glory in the Holy One of Israel (verse 16).”
Gone will be the days when God’s people will glory in earthly redeemers. They will finally recognize the Holy One who is lingering behind it all.
Happy though they will be after the battle, the children of Israel will be exhausted. Though victors, they will be poor and thirsty, and God, being God, will be ready. He will turn the desert into pools of water and the parched ground will be turned into springs (verses 17-18). His people won’t just get their land back; they’ll walk into new and improved Israel with water and trees and remedies for all of their sorrows and pain.
Why after all their doubt and betrayal are they sentenced to a future of blessing?
“so that people may see and know, may consider and understand, that the hand of the Lord has done this, that the Holy One of Israel has created it (verse 20).”
Now it’s time for the idols to appear before Jacob’s King. We should know by now that when God asks questions it’s for our learning, not His. So He speaks to idols He knows don’t exist because He knows that His children are listening. Did your parents ever do that? Yeah. Lots of conversations go on between moms and dads for the benefit of the kids. Had our parents spoken directly to us, most likely our attention would have been elsewhere, but eavesdropping is more fun than listening.
So God addresses imaginary idols. “If you’re so smart, tell us: why did history go the way it did?” (Silence.) “How about you tell us what the future will bring.” (Silence.) “Well, then, can you at least do something? Anything? Scare us silly if you can!” If we could eavesdrop on them we would hear just one long silence. They haven’t answered yet.
Well, God has news for them: “Here he comes.” And come he did. The one from the east swung down from the north and accomplished what God moved him to do (verses 25-26).
None of the nations’ prophets could have predicted that one. All they had were prophecies so vague they couldn’t be judged right or wrong. They were full of just hot air and confusion (verses 28-29).
But we will see in chapter 45 just how accurate true prophets’ warnings can be. The prophecies of Judah’s deliverance go far beyond their release from Babylon. These words mean more than their present redemption.
“I gave to Jerusalem a messenger of good news (verse 27).”
Here he comes. Not Cyrus, but Jesus.