By Christina M Wilson. Previously published at https://justonesmallvoice.com/the-structure-of-isaiah-41-isaiah-journal-2-4/.
Recap: Three Major Themes
Isaiah chapter 40 begins what is commonly called the book’s second volume. As such, this introductory chapter presents the book’s three major themes.
I. God’s People
Isaiah 40 begins with the words, “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people.” The theme of comfort for God’s people will continue as a major emphasis throughout the remainder of the book
II. God’s Savior Messiah
Then immediately, in verse 3, Isaiah announces a prophecy of the coming Messiah and his forerunner (Isaiah 40:3-11). Of course, Isaiah doesn’t use the word “Messiah.” Rather, he says, “Behold your God” (verse 9), and “Behold, the Lord” (verse 10). Because the New Testament quotes some of these verses in relation to John the Baptist and others in relation to Christ, they establish that Messiah (Christ) is indeed God. The coming of the Lord Christ, God’s Son, Savior, is the over-riding theme of this second portion of Isaiah. The Savior/Servant provides the comfort and salvation God promises. God’s Son the Savior, not Israel, is the prophet’s focus.
III. God’s Credentials
In Isaiah 40:12-31, God displays his credentials as Creator. Previous chapters in Isaiah did not present God as Creator of heaven and earth.
NEW TESTAMENT APPLICATIONS OF ISAIAH’S THEMES
The Introduction to the Gospel of John (John 1:1-18) contains all three of the major elements of Isaiah 40, though in a different form.
1. First and foremost, the Gospel of John concerns God’s Son, Israel’s Savior (John 1:12-13, 17). Just as in Isaiah, the Scripture of John presents the Son as its focus, not the nation Israel.
2. Secondly, the Son existed eternally in the beginning, face to face with God (John 1:1-3). The Son, the Word of God, created all things (John 1:3-4). He is Creator, co-partner with God.
3. Finally, the Introduction to John’s Gospel introduces the major theme of comfort (salvation) for all those who believe, Jew and Gentile alike (John 1:7, 9, 12-13). John identifies God’s people, his “children,” as all those who believe (John 1:12), without regard to race or ethnicity. The Apostle Paul also emphasizes this theme of sonship in the family of God without regard to race in many of his letters. See, for example, Galatians 3:7-9. As the second volume of Isaiah progresses beyond its opening chapter, the theme of salvation for Gentiles very nearly takes center stage.
How This Chapter Functions in the Whole
Chapter 41 of Isaiah may seem opaque, difficult, even at first, second, and third glances. It would be an easy chapter to brush aside without much bother and to move on to the more gritty “stuff” (content) that may seem more easily accessible. Eventually, however, especially by comparing translations, the flow and meaning of Chapter 41 becomes clear.
God is about to do a “new thing” (Isaiah 43:19) in the history of humankind. This new thing is the advent of the God-man. Very soon, (in a few hundred years, as reckoned from Isaiah’s viewpoint), an Israelite woman will give birth to a human being who is God incarnate. This was and remains unique in all of human history. This advent has received, continues to receive, and should receive a giant exclamation point. In Isaiah, as one of several biblical places, God begins to lay the groundwork for the Advent through his chosen prophet. Chapter 41 is part of this preliminary groundwork.
Some Details Concerning Structure
The layout of Chapter 41 is chunky. Isaiah 41:1 opens with God calling to the coastlands or islands, rulers, people, or nations (depending which translation the reader is using) to gather and come to him for a spoken meeting. These are the Gentile nations. But is this portion, Isaiah 41:1-7, positive or negative? Within the book of Isaiah, both are possible. It is only when the reader arrives at verse 7 that the meaning becomes clear. The nations are cooperating among themselves in order to create idols in opposition to God.
Following this address to the nations, God through the prophet speaks in first person to Israel. The passage from verse 8 through verse 20 is beyond doubt a very positive passage. It resembles Isaiah 40:1-5 and 27-31. God’s words offer great comfort to Israel.
But then, without warning, God suddenly states, “Set forth your case, says the LORD; bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob,” (Isaiah 41:21, ESV). The challenging tone of this verse continues through to the end of the chapter in verse 29. Where is the transition? Where does the text identify to whom God is speaking? So be it, the text leaves the reader on her own to figure this out. Eventually, however, the persistent reader comes to realize that God through Isaiah has again turned his attention to the nations he addresses in verses 1-7.
SUMMARY: So, in this chapter Isaiah presents three actors. 1) The first is God. He speaks in first person throughout. God’s speech alone moves the chapter along. There is no narrative. Nor does the prophet Isaiah comment at all. God’s first person speech pounds like a hammer. 2) The second actor is the Gentile nations collectively. Their role is passive. God addresses them. The reader must assume their presence and envision them listening to God and attempting to respond to his demands. 3) The third actor is Israel collectively. Like the Gentiles, their role is passive. They also appear only as listeners. Clearly, God is the main actor in Isaiah 41.
God designed Chapter 41 to be a sledgehammer. He intends to draw attention to the fact that he is prophesying in advance the astounding events soon to occur.
- Announcement of the Prophecy
Pay attention, God says. I am prophesying. I want you to notice this. No one among the Gentile nations is able to prophesy as I do (Isaiah 41:22, 23, 26, 28). I am from the beginning (Isaiah 41:4). I control history. I will prophesy what will happen, and it will come to pass.
- The Prophecy
- Israel will crush and thresh the mountains of the nations (Isaiah 41:15-16).
- I will, says God, abundantly provide for the poor and needy (Isaiah 41:17-20).
- I will open new water sources in the land that will cause lush vegetation to grow (Isaiah 41:18-19).
- Jacob (Messiah), My Servant, My chosen, will come (Isaiah 42:1f).
Outline of Structure
- Isaiah 41:1-7. God addresses non-believing Gentile nations, calling them to attention and challenging them to a contest of prophecy.
- Isaiah 41:8-20. God addresses Israel, “my servant,” with comfort and promise. God through the prophet introduces this section with “but you…”
- Isaiah 41:21-28. God addresses the non-believing Gentile nations a second time.
- Verses 21-24. God challenges these nations and their idols to do something amazing to display their power. One thing they might do is prophesy the future to demonstrate that they are gods.
- Verse25. God appeals to his raising forth of “one from the north…and from the rising of the sun” to demonstrate his power.
- Verses 26-28. God displays his credentials through prophesy. God states that no one from among the nations knew or foretold this. But he, God, did. He foretold, and he brings to pass.
- Isaiah 41:29. God sums up his argument with the Gentiles and their idols, “Behold, they are all a delusion; their works are nothing; their metal images are empty wind.” (ESV)
TO BE CONTINUED: The next post, Lord willing, will explore some of the details of particular verses in this chapter. A brief local application to the time and place of Isaiah will be presented. A Christian viewpoint will be considered.