Idols vs. the Perfect Servant (Isaiah 41:21-29; 42:1-9)

41:21-29 is Isaiah's 2nd statement of his case against idols and 42:1-9 is his 2nd address to the servant of the Lord. The case against idols is similar to the first (Isa 41:7) except that it is considerably more pointed. The address to the servant is very different from the first (Isa 41:8-20), so much so that it is likely to be a different servant being addressed.

The Case Against the Idols (41:21-29)

(41:21-24) Again God calls on the idol worshippers to present their case that the things they worship are really gods (Isa 41:21-22). Here Isaiah strikes directly at the heart of the pagan worldview. He calls on the idolaters to give evidence that their idols have ever specifically predicted the future or give an explanation of the past (Isa 41:22). Since there is neither a sense of purpose or of overarching meaning, there is no possibility of understanding why anything happens. If the past cannot be explained, then neither can the future be predicted (Isa 41:23). Have any of the gods ever given a specific prediction of something that had never happened before but that then subsequently did occur? Of course not. So God mocks them, daring them to do anything at all--either good for their worshippers or frightening against their enemies (Isa 41:23). But there is no answer. So God pronounces judgment (Isa 41:24). These gods are nothing. Their works are worthless. Those who worship them are foolish (detestable, an abomination). In attempting to deify creation, the idol worshippers have actually committed an offense against it.

(41:25-27) God responds to the challenge. God has a plan for history. What will unfold before the exiles' eyes will be the evidence of it. God has brought the conqueror (Isa 41:2; 44:28-45:1) who is coming down on Babylon like a brick-maker or a potter, who jumps into the vat where the clay is and treads it into liquid form (Isa 41:25).

It is one thing to assert that Cyrus's is coming at the direction of Jacob's King (Isa 41:21), but quite another to prove that the assertion is so. To prove this Isaiah declares that none of the idols predicted Cyrus's coming at all (Isa 41:26, 28). By contrast, the God of Israel did make such a prediction in advance (Isa 41:27) through Isaiah his messenger of good tidings in this very writing. The prediction is made in what Isaiah wrote during his own lifetime. Then when that writing is read with opened eyes (Isa 8:16; 29:11-12) amidst its fulfillment during the Exile, 150 years later, it will become its own confirmation.

41:28-29 is the pronouncement of judgment on the idol worshippers. They have been unable to give any answer to the questions God asked (Isa 41:28). There is no one among them who can give evidence that their gods are even in the same category as Yahweh (Isa 41:29). He alone is truly Other, and thus he alone is truly Holy. All who worship something other than the true God are doomed to become like their gods: nothing, worthless, wind and chaos (Isa 41:24,29). Their lives are doomed to become as meaningless as their gods are.

An Address to the Servant (42:1-9)

God's perfect Servant. The "servant of God" theme is one of the riches strands of Isaiah's thought, and it lies right at the heart of his message as it moves to its climax in this second half of the book.

In 41:1-20 the fearful servant needed to be reassured that although Cyrus's coming meant terror for the idol worshippers, it need not cause the servant any fear (Isa 41:10, . In 42:1-9 expands on Yahweh's control of history. Just as God will bring down the Babylonian Empire through Cyrus, so he will bring justice (Isa 42:1,3,4) to the nations  through his servant. The "new things" God will do through his servant (Isa 42:9) is what the gods/idols could never declare in advance, which the Lord can do so with impunity.

The identity of this servant has been the source of endless controversy. The differences between him and the servant Israel are striking. The servant Israel is fearful and blind, yet God loves him and will deliver him so that he can be God's evidence to the nations that he is indeed God. But this Servant who only appears here in ch.40-48 and but three times in ch.49-50, is of a different sort. He is always obedient and responsive to God, his mission is to bring justice to the nations for God, and he is to be a light to the nations and a covenant to the people (Isa 49:6). In contrast to the promises of divine blessing constantly being given to the servant Israel, this servant receives no benefits through his ministry but only increasing difficulty (49:1-7; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12). In sum, whoever this is, it is not the nation of Israel; it is another figure altogether.

The reiterated statements are that
  • this person is going to bring justice on the earth (Isa 42:1,3,4),
  • God's Spirit will be on him (Isa 42:1), and
  • his accomplishment of this end will not be through oppression (Isa 42:3).
This reminds us of the prophecies of the Messiah in Isaiah 9, 11 and 32, where we have the servant as King, while here we have the king as Servant. The idea that the ends of the earth (the islands), which could not defend the deity of their gods (Isa 41:1), will put their hope/wait for/trust in his law (Isa 42:4) is further indication that this figure is a messianic one (Isa 2:1-5).

The further description of the ministry of this Servant in 42:6-7 confirms that this is not the nation but someone who will function for the nation and indeed for the world. Where Israel was blind and deaf, captive to the powers of this world, this Servant will give sight and freedom. This ministry will be the ultimate revelation of the glory of God, which fills the earth (Isa 6:3) and belongs to no idol (Isa 42:8).

Reference: Oswalt, John N. Isaiah: The NIV Application Commentary. 2003.