Isaiah 41 Commentary

The living God and idols (41:1-29)

At that time Cyrus of Persia had been expanding his empire. He had conquered all the countries to the north and east, and was now threatening Babylon. The prophet imagines God calling the nations to assemble before him and asking them a question: who is it that has stirred up Cyrus to carry out this conquest? The answer: Yahweh (41:1-4).

As the armies of Cyrus approach these nations the people panic, and in their distress call upon their gods for protection. Isaiah pictures the goldsmiths and other craftsmen helping and encouraging each other as they work overtime to meet the heavy demand for idols (5-7).

The people of Israel, by contrast, are the people of the living God. He chose them long ago and he has not forgotten them. He is always present to strengthen and protect them (8-10). They need not fear their enemies, for God will fight for them – and no enemy can stand against him (11-13).

By God’s power Israel will be victorious. As a farmer threshes and winnows wheat, so Israel will crush and scatter its enemies (14-16). God will answer the prayers of his people, and provide them with all they need for a healthy and prosperous life. His gracious gifts will be a demonstration of his character that all can see (17-20).

God then challenges the gods of the nations to prove their power by predicting coming events. Not only are they unable to predict the future, they cannot even relate the past. He challenges them to prove their existence by doing anything at all, good or bad, but again they are unable. They are lifeless (21-24).


God points out that he predicts correctly and acts decisively. None of the gods of the nations predicted Cyrus’s conquest, but the God of Israel did (25-27). These gods can neither predict events nor answer questions. Being lifeless, they can only deceive those who worship them (28-29).

The Servant of Yahweh

In 42:1-4 we meet the first of the four so-called Servant Songs. (The others are in 49:1-6, 50:4-9 and 52:13-53:12.) The songs do not always give a clear indication who this servant is. In some cases the whole nation Israel is the servant, in other cases it is the faithful within Israel, while in some cases it is the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

The probable reason for this threefold meaning is that Israel as a whole failed, and the spiritual blessings God desired for Israel were experienced only by the faithful few who truly believed God. Yet even this faithful remnant did not experience the full blessings God intended for his people. God’s purposes for Israel were fulfilled only in Jesus the Messiah. The nation Israel was Abraham’s natural offspring (John 8:37); the few faithful believers within Israel, often referred to as the remnant, were his spiritual offspring (Rom 9:6-7; Gal 3:29); but the Messiah himself was the one and only perfect off- spring, in whom all God’s purposes for Israel were fulfilled and through whom people of all nations are blessed (Gal 3:16; cf. Gen 12:1-3,7).

Although the people of Israel repeatedly failed and suffered God’s punishment, they nevertheless looked forward to a golden age of glory and power. The expectancy of a golden age naturally became greater as the exiles in Babylon learnt that they were about to return to their land. But, having returned and rebuilt their nation, they again failed. Jesus Christ, the embodiment of ideal Israel, not only suffered God’s punishment because of his people’s sins, but brought the glory and power that Israel hoped for but never achieved (cf. Isa 42:1-4 with Matt 12:17-21; cf. Isa 53:4 with Matt 8:17).

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