6/25/2016

Fear Not, I Am God (Isaiah 41)

"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" (Isa 41:10). "'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. Do not be afraid, you worm Jacob, little Israel, do not fear, for I myself will help you,' declares the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel" (Isa 41:13-14).

In 40:12-31 Isaiah reasoned that the greatness of Yahweh as Creator guarantees that the huge and worldwide promises of 40:1-11 will be fulfilled. This great God cannot fail to keep his promises and guard his people. In 41:1-20, Isaiah offers a second guarantee: Yahweh is also the world ruler (41:1-7), and in this capacity he is also the guardian of his own people (41:8-20).

In ch. 41-46, Isaiah seems to repeat key themes in varying ways. Then ch. 47 draws the conclusions of what has been said as regards Babylon, and ch. 48 is a call to trust and belief. The hymnic portions in 42:10-13 and 44:23 are regarded as structural indicators that bring a previous unit to a close and introduce a new one. The structure may then be 41:1-42:9; 42:10-44:22; and 44:23-47:15.

Two subsections can be identified within 41:1-42:9, each beginning with a challenge to the idol worshipers to present their best case that their gods are truly divine.
  1. 41:1-20 speaks of the terror that God's activities are inducing among the idol worshipers (2-7) but goes on to assure his servant Israel that they need not be afraid (8-20).
  2. 41:21-42:9 begins with a strong argument for God's superiority over the idols because he alone has foretold the future (41:21-29) and concludes by introducing the ideal Servant, through whom God will bring justice on the earth (42:1-9).
(41:1) God's Challenge to the Nations. 41:1 introduces an imaginary court case between God and the idols in order to determine who is really God. Each side is to bring forward evidence to prove their point. Here God calls the islands and nations from the farthest ends of the earth to be silent in the presence of the Judge of the universe and to hear his evidence. Then they must make whatever response they can. By this means God will demonstrate to his fearful people downtrodden that their captivity in Babylon in no way calls his power or lordship into question.

(41:2-7) God's Activities as Evidence

41:2-4 God begins with a rhetorical question and answers it (Isa 41:2,4). The "one from the east" is most certainly the Persian Cyrus (Isa 45:1), who was to bring down the Babylonian Empire. God is appealing to his unique nature as the Sovereign Lord as evidence that he alone is God (Isa 41:4b). This argument will be repeated and intensified several times in the next few chapters as this court case continues.

Isaiah not only says that God has called Cyrus forth. He also says that it is God who has given the nations into his hand, such that Cyrus is able to subdue every nation he encounters with ease, treating them like grain to be threshed (Isa 41:2) because this is in God's plan, the God who knows the end from the beginning (Isa 41:4b; 43:10; 44:6; 46:10; 48:12). God is not just a part of the process, as the pagan gods are. Rather, God stands outside of time, calling it into existence, directing its path, and bringing it to an end. "I am he" is a statement both of self-existence and self-identity (Exo 6:3). God says he is the One who "is." Every other life form on the planet is derivative. But God is the One who has neither beginning nor end. He simply "is."

41:5-7 When the "nations" of the earth hear of Cyrus's earth-shaking conquests, they will be terrified (41:5-6). So what can they do ... other than to make better idols (Isa 41:7). This idea (Isa 40:25-26) is repeated in the coming chapters (Isa 41:22-24; 44:9-20; 46:6-7). Because there is no encouragement to be had from their gods, idol worshippers must encourage one another (Isa 41:6) and saying "It is good" (Isa 41:7), which reminds us of what the Creator repeatedly says of his creation in Genesis 1.

(41:8-20) 8-9 No Need for God's People to Fear. In this section God asserts that unlike the powerful nations around them, the Judean captives have nothing to fear. Their God is no idol whom they have made. God is powerful enough to do something about their situation. But does he want to? These verses insist that God has not cast them off because of their sin. In fact, they are his "servant," his "chosen" (Isa 41:8-9). God has not forgotten his promise to Abraham.

41:10 Just as God took Abraham from Mesopotamia and the Israelites out of Egypt, he can take them out of exile as well. God is with them to strengthen, help and uphold them so that they have nothing to fear (Isa 41:10). "Do not be afraid" is a central issue for people in captivity. As a result this theme is repeated so often in this section of Isaiah. What are they afraid of? That God has abandoned them. So Isaiah reminds them again and again that this will not happen.

41:11-14 They are also afraid that their many enemies will overpower them. This is addressed in 41:11-16. God will protect them and their enemies will simply evaporate before the Lord (Isa 41:11-12).  Why? Because "I am the Lord," language that is reminiscent of the Exodus. God will demonstrate his lordship by helping his people (Isa 41:13-14).

The word "Redeemer" appears for the first time in Isaiah (Isa 41:14). It appears 13 more times, 10 of them before Isa 54:9. It is given a special association with "the Holy One of Israel." In ch. 1-39 this expression for God most frequently conveyed his transcendent power and glory. In this part of Isaiah it is especially associated with his power to bring his own people back to him.

41:15-16 God continues to offer his people protection from their enemies. But now the focus moves from defense to offense. Just as Cyrus will use his sword to threst his enemies (Isa 41:2), so God is going to use Israel. A "threshing sledge" was constructed from pieces of wood with sharp stones (teeth) driven into them. This device was pulled around over a pile of cut grain so that the kernels of grain were separated from the husks both by the weight and by the cutting effect of the stones. God will use Israel in his plan of world history. They will not be passive by-standers, a helpless "worm" (Isa 41:14), but will be active participants with God in his work. We might think of Daniel in this respect, with his influence in both Babylon and Persia (Dan 6:25-28), and also of Esther and Mordecai (Est 10:1-3).

41:17-20 are a graphic summary of what has been said. Isaiah depicts a God who can do the impossible His people are spiritually dry and desolate. Their hopes are gone and their dreams broken. Yet God, who is not a part of the cosmic system and thus not captive to it (Isa 41:17), can do what is new and unheard of. He can make rivers flow on mountaintops and cause pools to spring up in the desert (Isa 41:18).

Such language is reminiscent of ch.35, where God said he could turn the desert into a garden, indeed into a forest (Isa 35:1,6-7). God reiterates that promise here. He even goes a step further by giving the reason for doing this for his people: so that the world may see the evidence in what God has done for Israel that he is indeed God, the Holy One (Isa 41:20). Ezekial makes a similar point when he says that God will show himself holy among his people so that the world may know who he is (Eze 36:23).