« Prev Chapter VII. God: An Argument from History.… Next »




Isaiah xli.

Having revealed Himself to His own people in ch. xl., Jehovah now turns in ch. xli. to the heathen, but, naturally, with a very different kind of address. Displaying His power to His people in certain sacraments, both of nature and history, He had urged them to wait upon Him alone for the salvation, of which there were as yet no signs in the times. But with the heathen it is evidently to these signs of the times, that He can best appeal. Contemporary history, facts open to every man's memory and reason, is the common ground on which Jehovah and the other gods can meet. Ch. xli. is, therefore, the natural complement to ch. xl. In ch. xl. we have the element in revelation that precedes history: in ch. xli. we have history itself explained as a part of revelation.

Ch. xli. is loosely cast in the same form of a Trial-at-Law, which we found in ch. i. To use a Scotticism, which exactly translates the Hebrew of ver. 1, Jehovah goes to the law with the idols. His summons to the Trial is given in ver. 1; the ground of the Trial is advanced in vv. 2-7. Then comes a digression, vv. 8-20, in which the Lord turns from controversy with the heathen to comfort His people. In vv. 21-29107 Jehovah's plea is resumed, and in the silence of the defendants—a silence, which, as we shall presently see by calling in the witness of a Greek historian, was actual fact—the argument is summed up and the verdict given for the sole divinity of Israel's God.

The main interest of the Trial lies, of course, in its appeal to contemporary history, and to the central figure Cyrus, although it is to be noted that the prophet as yet refrains from mentioning the hero by name. This appeal to contemporary history lays upon us the duty of briefly indicating, how the course of that history was tending outside Babylon,—outside Babylon, as yet, but fraught with fate both to Babylon and to her captives.

Nebuchadrezzar, although he had virtually succeeded to the throne of the Assyrian, had not been able to repeat from Babylon that almost universal empire, which his predecessors had swayed from Nineveh. Egypt, it is true, was again as thoroughly driven from Asia as in the time of Sargon: to the south the Babylonian supremacy was as unquestioned as ever the Assyrian had been. But to the north Nebuchadrezzar met with an almost equal rival, who had helped him in the overthrow of Nineveh, and had fallen heir to the Assyrian supremacy in that quarter. This was Kastarit or Kyaxares, an Aryan, one of the pioneers of that Aryan invasion from the East, which, though still tardy and sparse, was to be the leading force in Western Asia for the next century. This Kyaxares had united under his control a number of Median tribes,4949   Media simply means "the country." It is supposed, that of the six Median tribes only one was Aryan, holding the rest, which were Turanian, under its influence. a people of108 Turanian stock. With these, when Nineveh fell, he established to the north of Nebuchadrezzar's power the empire of Media, with its western boundary at the river Halys, in Asia Minor, and its capital at Ecbatana under Mount Elwand. It is said that the river Indus formed his frontier to the east. West of the Halys, the Mede's progress was stopped by the Lydian Empire, under King Alyattis, whose capital was Sardis, and whose other border was practically the coast of the Ægean. In 585, or two years after the destruction of Jerusalem, Alyattis and Kyaxares met in battle on the Halys. But the terrors of an eclipse took the heart to fight out of both their armies, and, Nebuchadrezzar intervening, the three monarchs struck a treaty among themselves, and strengthened it by intermarriage. Western Asia now virtually consisted of the confederate powers, Babylonia, Media and Lydia.5050   There were, besides, a few small independent powers in Asia Minor, such as Cilicia, whose prince also intervened at the Battle of the Eclipse; and the Ionian cities in the west. But all these, with perhaps the exception of Lycia, were brought into subjection to Lydia by Crœsus, son of Alyattis.

Let us realise how far this has brought us. When we stood with Isaiah in Jerusalem, our western horizon lay across the middle of Asia Minor in the longitude of Cyprus.5151   Vol. i., p. 92. It now rests upon the Ægean; we are almost within sight of Europe. Straight from Babylon to Sardis runs a road, with a regular service of couriers. The court of Sardis holds domestic and political intercourse with the courts of Babylon and Ecbatana; but the court of Sardis also lords it over the Asiatic Greeks, worships at Greek shrines, will shortly be visited by Solon and strike an alliance with Sparta. In the time109 of the Jewish exile there were without doubt many Greeks in Babylon; men may have spoken there with Daniel, who had spoken at Sardis with Solon.

This extended horizon makes clear to us what our prophet has in his view, when in this forty-first chapter he summons Isles to the bar of Jehovah: Be silent before me, O Isles, and let Peoples renew their strength,—a vision and appeal which frequently recur in our prophecy. Listen, O Isles, and hearken, O Peoples from afar (xlix. 1); Isles shall wait for His law (xlii. 4); Let them give glory to Jehovah, and publish His praise in the Isles (xlii. 12); Unto me Isles shall hope (li. 5); Surely Isles shall wait for me, ships of Tarshish first.5252   Other passages are: xli. 5, Isles saw and feared, the ends of the earth trembled; xlii. 10, The sea and its fulness, Isles and their dwellers; lix. 18, He will repay, fury to His adversaries, recompence to His enemies: to the Isles He will repay recompence; lxvi. 19, The nations, Tarshish, Pul, Lud, drawers of the bow, Tubal, Javan, the Isles afar off that have not heard my fame. The Hebrew is אי 'î, and is supposed to be from a root אוה awah, to inhabit, which sense, however, never attaches to the verb in Hebrew, but is borrowed from the cognate Arabic word. The name is generally taken by scholars—according to the derivation in the note below—to have originally meant habitable land, and so land as opposed to water. In some passages of the Old Testament it is undoubtedly used to describe a land either washed, or surrounded, by the sea.5353   Of the Philistine coast, Isa. xx. 6; of the Tyrian coast, Isa. xxiii. 2, 6; of Greece, Ezek. xxvii. 7; of Crete, Jer. xlvii. 4; of the islands of the sea, Isa. xi. 11 and Esther x. 1.

But by our prophet's use of the word it is not necessarily maritime provinces that are meant. He makes isles parallel to the well-known terms nations, peoples, Gentiles, and in one passage he opposes it, as dry soil, to water.5454   xlii. 15: Eng. version, I will turn rivers into islands. Hence many translators take it in110 its original sense of countries or lands. This bare rendering, however, does not do justice to the sense of remoteness, which the prophet generally attaches to the word, nor to his occasional association of it with visions of the sea. Indeed, as one reads most of his uses of it, one is quite sure that the island-meaning of the word lingers on in his imagination; and that the feeling possesses him, which has haunted the poetry of all ages, to describe as coasts or isles any land or lighting-place of thought which is far and dim and vague; which floats across the horizon, or emerges from the distance, as strips and promontories of land rise from the sea to him who has reached some new point of view. I have therefore decided to keep the rendering familiar to the English reader, isles, though, perhaps, coasts would be better. If, as is probable, our prophet's thoughts are always towards the new lands of the west as he uses the word, it is doubly suitable; those countries were both maritime and remote; they rose both from the distance and from the sea.

"The sprinkled isles,

Lily on lily, that o'erlace the sea

And laugh their pride, where the light wave lisps, 'Greece.'"

But if Babylonia lay thus open to Lydia, and through Lydia to the isles and coasts of Greece, it was different with her northern frontier. What strikes us here is the immense series of fortifications, which Nebuchadrezzar, in spite of his alliance with Astyages, cast up between his country and Media. Where the Tigris and Euphrates most nearly approach one another, about seventy miles to the north of Babylon, Nebuchadrezzar connected their waters by four canals, above which111 he built a strong bulwark, called by the Greeks the Median wall. This may have been over sixty miles long; Xenophon tells us it was twenty feet broad by one hundred high.5555   Anabasis 2, 4. At Sippara this line of defence was completed by the creation of a great bason of water to flood the rivers and canals on the approach of an enemy, and of a large fortress to protect the bason. Alas for the vanity of human purposes! It is said to have been this very bason which caused the easy fall of Babylon. By turning the Euphrates into it, the enemy entered the capital through the emptied river-bed.

The triple alliance—Lydia, Media, Babylonia—stood firm after its founders passed away. In 555, Crœsus and Astyages, who had succeeded their fathers at Sardis and Ecbatana respectively, and Nabunahid, who had usurped the throne at Babylon, were still at peace, and contented with the partition of 585. But outside them and to the east, in a narrow nook of land at the head of the Persian Gulf, the man was already crowned, who was destined to bring Western Asia again under one sceptre. This was Kurush or Cyrus II. of Anzan, but known to history as Cyrus the Great or Cyrus the Persian. Cyrus was a prince of the Akhæmenian house of Persia, and therefore, like the Mede, an Aryan, but independent of his Persian cousins, and ruling in his own right the little kingdom of Anzan or Anshan, which, with its capital of Susan, lay on the rivers Choaspes and Eulæus, between the head of the Persian Gulf and the Zagros Mountains.5656   There were two branches of the Persian royal family after Teispes, the son of Akhæmenes, the founder. Teispes annexed Anshan on the level land between the north-east corner of the Persian Gulf and the mountains of Persia. Teispes' eldest son, Cyrus I., became king of Anshan; his other, Ariaramnes, king of Persia. These were succeeded by their sons, Kambyses I. and Arsames. Kambyses I. was the father of Cyrus II., the great Cyrus, who rejoined Persia to Anshan, to the exclusion of his second cousin, Hystaspes. Cyrus the Great was succeeded by his son, Kambyses II., with whom the Anshan line closed, and the power was transferred to Darius, son of Hystaspes. Cf. Ragozin's Media, in the "Story of the Nations" series.


Cyrus the Great is one of those mortals whom the muse of history, as if despairing to do justice to him by herself, has called in her sisters to aid her in describing to posterity. Early legend and later and more elaborate romance; the schoolmaster, the historian, the tragedian and the prophet, all vie in presenting to us this hero "le plus sympathique de l'antiquité"5757   Halévy, "Cyrus et le Retour de l'Exil," Études Juives, I.—this king on whom we see so deeply stamped the double signature of God, character and success. We shall afterwards have a better opportunity to speak of his character. Here we are only concerned to trace his rapid path of conquest.

He sprang, then, from Anshan, the immediate neighbour of Babylonia to the east. This is the direction indicated in the second verse of this forty-first chapter: Who hath raised up one from the east? But the twenty-fifth verse veers round with him to the north: I have raised up one from the north, and he is come. This was actually the curve, from east to north, which his career almost immediately took.

For in 549 Astyages, king of Media, attacked Cyrus,5858   Inscription of Nabunahid. king of Anshan; which means that Cyrus was already a considerable and an aggressive prince. Probably he had united by this time the two domains of his house, Persia and Anshan, under his own sceptre, and secured as his lieutenant Hystaspes, his cousin, the lineal king113 of Persia. The Mede, looking south and east from Ecbatana, saw a solid front opposed to him, and resolved to crush it before it grew more formidable. But the Aryans among the Medes, dissatisfied with so indolent a leader as Astyages, revolted to Cyrus, and so the latter, with characteristic good fortune, easily became lord of Media. A lenient lord he made. He spared Astyages, and ranked the Aryan Medes second only to the Persians. But it took him till 546 to complete his conquest. When he had done so he stood master of Asia from the Halys to perhaps as far east as the Indus. He replaced the Medes in the threefold power of Western Asia, and thus looked down on Babylon, as v. 25 says, from the north (xli. 25).

In 545, Cyrus advanced upon Babylonia, and struck at the northern line of fortifications at Sippara. He was opposed by an army under Belshazzar, Bel-shar-uzzur, the son of Nabunahid, and probably by his mother's side grandson of Nebuchadrezzar. Army or fortifications seem to have been too much for Cyrus, and there is no further mention of his name in the Babylonian annals till the year 538. It has been suggested that Cyrus was aware of the discontent of the people with their ruler Nabunahid, and, with that genius which distinguished his whole career for availing himself of the internal politics of his foes, he may have been content to wait till the Babylonian dissatisfaction had grown riper, perhaps in the meantime fostering it by his own emissaries.

In any case, the attention of Cyrus was now urgently demanded on the western boundary of his empire, where Lydia was preparing to invade him. Crœsus, king of Lydia, fresh from the subjection of the Ionian Greeks, and possessing an army and a treasure second114 to none in the world, had lately asked of Solon, whether he was not the most fortunate of men; and Solon had answered, to count no man happy till his death. The applicability of this advice to himself Crœsus must have felt with a start, when, almost immediately after it, the news came that his brother-in-law Astyages had fallen before an unknown power, which was moving up rapidly from the east, and already touched the Lydian frontier at the Halys. Crœsus was thrown into alarm. He eagerly desired to know Heaven's will about this Persian and himself, who now stood face to face. But, in that heathen world, with its thousand shrines to different gods, who knew the will of Heaven? In a fashion only possible to the richest man in the world, Crœsus resolved to discover, by sending a test-question, on a matter of fact within his own knowledge, to every oracle of repute: to the oracles of the Greeks at Miletus, Delphi, Abæ; to that of Trophonius; to the sanctuary of Amphiaraus at Thebes; to Dodona; and even to the far-off temple of Ammon in Libya. The oracles of Delphi and Amphiaraus alone sent an answer, which in the least suggested the truth. "To the gods of Delphi and Amphiaraus, Crœsus, therefore, offered great sacrifices,—three thousand victims of every kind; and on a great pile of wood he burned couches plated with gold and silver, golden goblets, purple robes and garments, in the hope that he would thereby gain the favour of the god yet more.... And as the sacrifice left behind an enormous mass of molten gold, Crœsus caused bricks to be made, six palms in length, three in breadth and one in depth; in all there were 117 bricks.... In addition there was a golden lion which weighed ten talents. When these were finished, Crœsus sent them to Delphi; and he added two very large115 mixing bowls, one of gold, weighing eight talents and a half and twelve minæ, and one of silver (the work of Theodorus of Samos, as the Delphians say, and I believe it, for it is the work of no ordinary artificer), four silver jars, and two vessels for holy water, one of gold, the other of silver, circular casts of silver, a golden statue of a woman three cubits high, and the necklace and girdles of his queen."5959   Herodotus, Book I. We can understand, that for all this Crœsus got the best advice consistent with the ignorance and caution of the priests whom he consulted. The oracles told him that if he went against Cyrus he would destroy a great empire; but he forgot to ask, whether it was his own or his rival's. When he inquired a second time, if his reign should be long, they replied: "When a mule became king of the Medes," then he might fly from his throne; but again he forgot to consider that there might be mules among men as among beasts.6060   Herodotus explains this by his legend of Cyrus' birth, according to which Cyrus was a hybrid—half Persian, half Mede. At the same time, the oracles tempered their ambiguous prophecies with some advice of undoubted sense, for when he asked them who were the most powerful among the Greeks, they replied the Spartans, and to Sparta he sent messengers with presents to conclude an alliance. "The Lacedæmonians were filled with joy; they knew the oracle which had been given Crœsus, and made him a friend and ally, as they had previously received many kindnesses at his hands."6161   Herodotus, Book I.

This glimpse into the preparations of Crœsus, whose embassies compassed the whole civilised world, and whose wealth got him all that politics or religion could,116 enables us to realise the political and religious excitement into which Cyrus' advent threw that generation. The oracles in doubt and ambiguous; the priests, the idol-manufacturers, and the crowd of artisans, who worked in every city at the furniture of the temple, in a state of unexampled activity, with bustle perhaps most like the bustle of our government dockyards on the eve of war; hammering new idols together, preparing costly oblations, overhauling the whole religious "ordnance," that the gods might be propitiated and the stars secured to fight in their courses against the Persian; rival politicians practising conciliation, and bolstering up one another with costly presents to stand against this strange and fatal force, which indifferently threatened them all. What a commentary Herodotus' story furnishes upon the verses of this chapter, in which Jehovah contrasts the idols with Himself. It may actually have been Crœsus and the Greeks whom the prophet had in his mind when he wrote vv. 5-7: The isles have seen, and they fear; the ends of the earth tremble: they draw near and they come. They help every man his neighbour, and to his brother each sayeth, Be strong. So carver encourageth smelter, smoother with hammer, smiter on anvil; one saith of the soldering, It is good: and he fasteneth it with nails lest it totter. The irony is severe, but true to the facts as Herodotus relates them. The statesmen hoped to keep back Cyrus by sending sobbing messages to one another, Be of good courage; the priests "by making a particularly good and strong set of gods."6262   Sir Edward Strachey.

While the imbecility of the idolatries was thus manifest, and the great religious centres of heathendom were reduced to utter doubt that veiled itself in117 ambiguity and waited to see how things would issue, there was one religion in the world, whose oracles gave no uncertain sound, whose God stepped boldly forth to claim Cyrus for His own. In the dust of Babylonia lay the scattered members of a nation captive and exiled, a people civilly dead and religiously degraded; yet it was the faith of this worm of a people, which welcomed and understood Cyrus, it was the God of this people who claimed to be his author. The forty-first chapter looks dreary and ancient to the uninstructed eye, but let our imagination realise all these things: the ambiguous priests, oracles that would not speak out, religions that had no articulate counsel nor comfort in face of the conqueror who was crushing up the world before him, but only sobs, solder and nails; and our heart will leap as we hear how God forces them all into judgement before Him, and makes His plea as loud and clear as mortal ear may hear. Clatter of idols, and murmur of muffled oracles, filling all the world; and then, hark how the voice of Jehovah crashes His oracle across it all!

Keep silence towards Me, O Isles, and let the peoples renew their strength: let them approach; then let them speak: to the Law let us come.

Who hath stirred up from the sunrise Righteousness, calleth it to his foot? He giveth to his face peoples, and kings He makes him to trample; giveth them as dust to his sword, as driven stubble to his bow. He pursues them, and passes to peace a road that he comes not with his feet. Who has wrought it and done it? Summoner of generations from the source,6363   Lit. from the head, "da capo." I am not sure, however, that it does not rather mean beforehand, like our on ahead. I Jehovah the First, and with the Last; I am He.


Crœsus would have got a clear answer here, but it is probable that he had never heard of the Hebrews or of their God.

After this follows the satiric picture of the heathen world, which has already been quoted. And then, after an interval during which Jehovah turns to His own people (vv. 8-20),—for whatever be His business or His controversy, the Lord is mindful of His own,—He directs His speech specially against the third class of the leaders of heathendom. He has laughed the foolish statesmen and imagemakers out of court (vv. 5-7); He now challenges, in ver. 21, the oracles and their priests.

We have seen what these were, which this vast heathen world—heathen but human, convinced as we are that at the back of the world's life there is a secret, a counsel and a governor, and anxious as we are to find them—had to resort to. Timid waiters upon time, whom not even the lavish wealth of a Crœsus could tempt from their ambiguity; prophets speechless in face of history; oracles of meaning as dark and shifty as their steamy caves at Delphi, of tune as variable as the whispering oak of Dodona; wily-tongued Greeks, masters of ambiguous phrase, at Miletus, Abæ, and Thebes; Egyptian mystics in the far off temple of "Lybic Hammon,"—these are what the prophet sees standing at the bar of history, where God is Challenger.

Bring here your case, saith Jehovah; apply your strong grounds, saith the King of Jacob. Let them bring out and declare unto us what things are going to happen; the first things6464   See p. 121. announce what they are, that we may set our heart on them, and know the issue of them;119 or the things that are coming, let us hear them. Announce the things that are to come hereafter, that we may know that ye are gods. Yea, do good or do evil, that we may stare and see it together. Lo! ye are nothing, and your work is of nought; an abomination is he who chooseth you.

Which great challenge just means, Come and be tested by facts. Here is history needing an explanation, and running no one knows whither. Prove your divinity by interpreting or guiding it. Cease your ambiguities, and give us something we can set our minds to work upon. Or do something, effect something in history, be it good or be it evil,—only let it be patent to our senses. For the test of godhead is not ingenuity or mysteriousness, but plain deeds, which the senses can perceive, and plain words, which the reason and conscience can judge. The insistance upon the senses and mental faculties of man is remarkable: Make us hear them, that we may know, stare, see all together, set our mind to them.

But as we have learned from Herodotus, there was nobody in the world to answer such a challenge. Therefore Jehovah Himself answers it. He gives His explanation of history, and claims its events for His doing.

I have stirred up from the north, and he hath come; from the rising of the sun one who calleth upon My Name: and he shall trample satraps like mortar, and as the potter treadeth out clay.

Who hath announced on-ahead6565   This seems to me to be more likely to be the meaning of the prophet, than the absolute from the beginning. It suits its parallel beforehand, and it is more in line with the general demand of the chapter for anticipation of events. It is literally from the head, "da capo," cf. p. 117. that we may know,120 and beforehand that we may say, "Right!" Yea, there is none that announced, yea, there is none that published, yea, there is none that heareth your words. But a prediction—or predicter, literally a thing or man on-ahead (r'ishôn corresponding to the me-r'osh of ver. 26)—a prediction to Zion, "Behold, behold them," and to Jerusalem a herald of good news—I am giving. The language here comes forth in jerks, and is very difficult to render. But I look and there is no man even among these, and no counsellor, that I might ask them and they return word. Lo, all of them vanity! and nothingness their works; wind and waste their molten images.

Let us look a little more closely at the power of Prediction, on which Jehovah maintains His unique and sovereign Deity against the idols.

Jehovah challenges the idols to face present events, and to give a clear, unambiguous forecast of their issue. It is a debatable question, whether He does not also ask them to produce previous predictions of events happening at the time at which He speaks. This latter demand is one that He makes in subsequent chapters; it is part of His prophet's argument in chs. xlv.-xlvi., that Jehovah intimated the advent of Cyrus by His servants in Israel long before the present time. Whether He makes this same demand for previous predictions in ch. xli. depends on how we render a clause of ver. 22, declare ye the former things. Some scholars take former things in the sense, in which it is used later on in this prophecy, of previous predictions. This is very doubtful. I have explained in a note, why I think them wrong; but121 even if they are right, and Jehovah be really asking the idols to produce former predictions of Cyrus' career, the demand is so cursory, it proves so small an item in His plea, and we shall afterwards find so many clearer statements of it, that we do better to ignore it now and confine ourselves to emphasizing the other challenge, about which there is no doubt,—the challenge to take present events and predict their issue.6666   ראשנות r'ishonôth is a relative term, meaning head things, things ahead, first things, prior things, whether in rank or time. Here of course the time meaning is undoubted. But ahead of what? prior to what?—this is the difficulty. Ewald, Hitzig, A. B. Davidson, Driver, etc., take it as prior to the standpoint of the speaker; things that happened or were uttered previous to him,—a sense in which the word is used in subsequent chapters. But Delitzsch, Hahn, Cheyne, etc., take it to be things prior to other things that will happen in the later future, early events, as opposed to הבאות of the next clause, which they take to mean subsequent things, things that are to come afterwards. I think Dr. Davidson's reasons (see Expositor, second series, vol. vii., p. 256) are quite conclusive against this view of Delitzsch, that in this clause the idols are being asked to predict events in the near future. It is difficult, as he says, to see why the idols should be given a choice between the earlier and the later future: nor does the הבאות of the contrasted clause at all suggest a later future; it simply means things coming, a term which is as applicable to the near as to the far future. Nevertheless, I am not persuaded that Dr. Davidson's own view of r'ishonôth is the correct one. The rest of the context (see above) is occupied with predictions of the future only. And r'ishonôth does not necessarily mean previous predictions, although used in this sense in the subsequent chapters. It simply means, as we have seen, head things, things ahead, things beforehand, or fountain-things, origins, causes. That we are to understand it here in some such general and absolute sense is suggested, I think, by the word אחריתן which follows it, their result or issue, and is confirmed by ראשן, r'ishôn (masc. singular) of ver. 27, which is undoubtedly used in a general sense, meaning something or somebody on ahead, an anticipator, predicter, forerunner (as Cheyne gives it), or as I have rendered it above, neuter, a prediction. If r'ishôn in ver. 27 means a thing or a man given beforehand, then r'ishonôth in ver. 22 may also mean things given beforehand, predictions made now, or at least things selected and announced as causes now, whose issue, אחריתן, may be recognised in the future. In a word, r'ishonôth would mean things not necessarily previous to the speech in which they were allowed, but simply things previous to certain results, or anticipating certain events, either as their prediction or as their cause. Crœsus had asked the oracles for a forecast of the future. This is exactly what Jehovah demands in ver. 22, declare unto us what things are going to happen; in ver. 23, declare the things that are to come hereafter, that we may know that ye are gods; in ver. 26 (spoken from the standpoint of the subsequent fulfilment of the prediction), who declared it on-ahead that we may know, and beforehand that we may now say, "Right!" Yea, there is none that declared, yea, there is none that published, yea, there is none that heareth your words. But a prediction unto Zion, "Behold, behold122 them," and to Jerusalem a herald of good news—I give. I give is emphatically placed at the end,—"I Jehovah alone, through my prophets in Israel, give such a prediction and publisher of good news."

We scarcely require to remind ourselves, that this great challenge and plea are not mere rhetoric or idle boasting. Every word in them we have seen to be true to fact. The heathen religions were, as they are here represented, helpless before Cyrus, and dumb about the issue of the great movements which the Persian had started. On the other hand, Jehovah had uttered to His people all the meaning of the new stir and turmoil in history. We have heard Him do so in ch. xl. There He gives a herald of good news to Jerusalem,—tells them of their approaching deliverance, explains His redemptive purposes, proclaims a gospel. In addition, He has in this chapter accepted Cyrus for His own creation and as part of His purpose, and has promised him victory.


The God of Israel, then, is God, because He alone by His prophets claims facts as they stand for His own deeds, and announces what shall become of them.

Do not let us, however, fall into the easy but vulgar error of supposing, that Jehovah claims to be God simply because He can predict. It is indeed prediction, which He demands from the heathen; for prediction is a minimum of godhead, and in asking it He condescends to the heathen's own ideas of what a god should be able to do. When Crœsus, the heathen who of all that time spent most upon religion, sought to decide which of the gods was worthiest to be consulted about the future and propitiated in face of Cyrus, what test did he apply to them? As we have seen, he tested them by their ability to predict a matter of fact: the god who told him what he, Crœsus, should be doing on a certain day was to be his god. It is evident, that, to Crœsus, divinity meant to be able to divine. But the God, who reveals Himself to Israel, is infinitely greater than this. He is not merely a Being with a far sight into the future; He is not only Omniscience. In the chapter preceding this one His power of prediction is not once expressed; it is lost in the two glories by which alone the prophet seeks to commend His Godhead to Israel,—the glory of His power and the glory of His faithfulness. Jehovah is Omnipotence, Creator of heaven and earth; He leads forth the stars by the greatness of His might; Supreme Director of history, it is He who bringeth princes to nothing. But Jehovah is also unfailing character: the word of the Lord standeth for ever; it is foolishness to say of Him that He has forgotten His people, or that their right has passed from Him; He disappoints none who wait upon Him. Such is the God, who steps down from ch. xl. into the controversy with the heathen in124 ch. xli. If in the latter He chiefly makes His claim to godhead to rest upon specimens of prediction, it is simply, as we have said, that He may meet the gods of the heathen before a bar and upon a principle, which their worshippers recognise as practical and decisive. What were single predictions, here and there, upon the infinite volume of His working, who by His power could gather all things to serve His own purpose, and in His faithfulness remained true to that purpose from everlasting to everlasting! The unity of history under One Will—this is a far more adequate idea of godhead than the mere power to foretell single events of history. And it is even to this truth that Jehovah seeks to raise the unaccustomed thoughts of the heathen. Past the rude wonder, which is all that fulfilled predictions of fact can excite, He lifts their religious sense to Himself and His purpose, as the one secret and motive of all history. He not only claims Cyrus and Cyrus' career as His own work, but He speaks of Himself as summoner of the generations from aforehand; I Jehovah, the First, and with the Last; I am He. It is a consummate expression of godhead, which lifts us far above the thought of Him as a mere divining power.

Now, it is well for us—were it only for the great historic interest of the thing, though it will also further our argument—to take record here that, although this conception of the unity of life under One Purpose and Will was still utterly foreign, and perhaps even unintelligible, to the heathen world, which the prophecy has in view, the first serious attempt in that world to reach such a conception was contemporary with the forty-first chapter of Isaiah. It is as miners feel, when, tunnelling from opposite sides of a mountain, they begin to hear the noise of each other's picks through the dwindling125 rock. We, who have come down the history of Israel towards the great consummation of religion in Christianity, may here cease for a moment our labours, to listen to the faint sound from the other side of the wall, still separating Israel from Greece, of a witness to God and an argument against idolatry similar to those with which we have been working. Who is not moved by learning, that, in the very years when Jewish prophecy reached its most perfect statement of monotheism, pouring its scorn upon the idols and their worshippers, and in the very Isles on which its hopes and influence were set, the first Greek should be already singing, who used his song to satirize the mythologies of his people, and to celebrate the unity of God? Among the Ionians, whom Cyrus' invasion of Lydia and of the Ægean coast in 544 drove across the seas, was Xenophanes of Colophon.6767   Ueberweg, History of Philosophy, English translation, i., 51. After some wanderings he settled at Elea in South Italy, and became the founder of the Eleatic school, the first philosophic attempt of the Greek mind to grasp the unity of Being. How far Xenophanes himself succeeded in this attempt is a matter of controversy. The few fragments of his poetry which are extant do not reveal him as a philosophical monotheist, so much as a prophet of "One greatest God." His language (like that of the earlier Hebrew prophets in praising Jehovah) apparently implies the real existence of lesser divinities:—

"One God, 'mongst both gods and men He is greatest,

Neither in shape is He like unto mortals, nor thought."6868   Quoted by Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Bk. V., ch. iv., and by Eusebius, Præp. Evang. xiii., 13.


Xenophanes scorns the anthropomorphism of his countrymen, and the lawless deeds which their poets had attributed to the gods:—

"Mortals think the gods can be born, have their feelings, voice and form; but, could horses or oxen draw like men, they too would make their gods after their own image."6969   Ibid.

"All things did Homer and Hesiod lay on the gods,

Such as with mortals are full of blame and disgrace,

To steal and debauch and outwit one another."7070   Quoted by Ueberweg, as above.

Our prophet, to whose eyes Gentile religiousness was wholly of the gross Crœsus kind, little suspected that he had an ally, with such kindred tempers of faith and scorn, among the very peoples to whom he yearns to convey his truth. But ages after, when Israel and Greece had both issued into Christianity, the service of Xenophanes to the common truth was recounted by two Church writers—by Clement of Alexandria in his Stromata, and by Eusebius the historian in his Præparatio Evangelica.

We find, then, that monotheism had reached its most absolute expression in Israel in the same decade, in which the first efforts towards the conception of the unity of Being were just starting in Greece. But there is something more to be stated. In spite of the splendid progress, which it pursued from such beginnings, Greek philosophy never reached the height on which, with Second Isaiah, Hebrew prophecy already rests; and127 the reason has to do with two points on which we are now engaged,—the omnipotence and the righteousness of God.

Professor Pfleiderer remarks: "Even in the idealistic philosophy of the Greeks ... matter remains, however sublimated, an irrational something, with which the Divine power can never come to terms. It was only in the consciousness, which the prophets of Israel had of God, that the thought of the Divine omnipotence fully prevailed."7171   Pfleiderer, Philosophy of Religion: Contents of the Religious Consciousness, ch. i. (Eng. trans., vol. iii., p. 291). We cannot overvalue such high and impartial testimony to the uniqueness of the Hebrew doctrine of God, but it needs to be supplemented. To the prophets' sense of the Divine omnipotence, we must add their unrivalled consciousness of the Divine character. To them Jehovah is not only the Holy, the incomparable God, almighty and sublime; He is also the true, consistent God. He has a great purpose, which He has revealed of old to His people, and to which He remains for ever faithful. To express this the Hebrews had one word,—the word we translate righteous. We should often miss our prophet's meaning, if by righteousness we understood some of the qualities to which the term is often applied by us: if, for instance, we used it in the general sense of morality, or if we gave it the technical meaning, which it bears in Christian theology, of justification from guilt. We shall afterwards devote a chapter to the exposition of its meaning in Second Isaiah, but let us here look at its use in ch. xli. In ver. 26, it is applied to the person whose prediction turns out to be correct: men are to say of him "right" or "righteous." Here it is evident128 that the Hebrew—ssaddîq—is used in its simplest meaning, like the Latin rectus, and our "right," of what has been shown to be in accordance with truth or fact. In ver. 2, again, though the syntax is obscure, it seems to have the general sense of good faith with the ability to ensure success. Righteousness is here associated with Cyrus, because he has not been called for nothing, but in good faith for a purpose which will be carried through. Jehovah's righteousness, then, will be His trueness, His good faith, His consistency; and indeed this is the sense which it must evidently bear in ver. 10. Take it with the context: But thou, Israel, My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, seed of Abraham who loved Me, whom I took hold of from the ends of the earth and its corners, I called thee and said unto thee, Thou art My servant. I have chosen thee, and will not cast thee away. Fear not, for I am with thee. Look not round in despair, for I am thy God. I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of My righteousness. Here righteousness evidently means that Jehovah will act in good faith to the people He has called, that He will act consistently with His anciently revealed purpose towards them. Hitherto Israel has had nothing but the memory that God called them, and the conscience that He chose them. Now Jehovah will vindicate this conscience in outward fact. He will carry through His calling of His people, and perform His promise. How He will do this, He proceeds to relate. Israel's enemies shall become as nothing (vv. 11, 12). Israel himself, though a poor worm of a people, shall be changed to the utmost conceivable opposite of a worm—even a sharp threshing instrument having teeth—a people who shall leave their mark on the world. They shall overcome all difficulties and rejoice129 in Jehovah. Their redemption shall be accomplished in a series of evident facts. The poor and the needy are seeking water, and there is none, their tongue faileth for thirst; I, Jehovah, will answer them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them. And this shall be done on such a scale, that all the world will wonder and be convinced, vv. 18-19: I will open on the bare heights rivers, and in the midst of the plains fountains. I will make the desert a pool of water, and the dry ground water-springs. I will plant in the wilderness cedars and acacias and myrtles and oil-trees; I will plant in the desert pines, planes and sherbins together. Do not let us spoil the meaning of this passage by taking these verses literally, or even as illustrative of the kind of restoration which Israel was to enjoy. This vast figure of a well-watered and planted desert the prophet uses rather to illustrate the scale on which the Restoration will take place: its evident extent and splendour. That they may see and know and consider and understand together, that Jehovah hath done this, and the Holy One of Israel hath created it. The whole passage, then, tells us what God means by His righteousness. It is His fidelity to His calling of Israel, and to His purpose with His people. It is the quality by which He cannot forsake His own, but carries through and completes His promises to them; by which He vindicates and justifies, in facts so large that they are evident to all mankind, His ancient word by His prophets.7272   See further on the subject the chapter on the Righteousness of Israel and of God, Chapter XIV. of this volume.

This lengthened exposition will not have been in vain, if it has made clear to us, that Hebrew monotheism owed its unique quality to the emphasis, which the prophets laid upon the two truths of the Power and130 the Character of God. There was One Supreme Being, infinite in might, and with one purpose running down the ages, which He had plainly revealed, and to which He remained constant. The people, who knew this, did not need to wait for the fulfilment of certain test-predictions before trusting Him as the One God. Test-predictions and their fulfilment might be needful for the heathen, from whose minds the idea of One Supreme Being with such a character had vanished; the heathen might need to be convinced by instances of Jehovah's omniscience, for omniscience was the most Divine attribute of which they had conceived. But Israel's faith rested upon glories in the Divine nature of which omniscience was the mere consequence. Israel knew God was Almighty and All-true, and that was enough.

Note upon Jehovah's Claim to Cyrus.

In ver. 25 a phrase is used of Cyrus which is very obscure, and to which, considering its vagueness even upon the most definite construction, far too much importance has been attached. The meaning of the words, the tenses, the syntax—perhaps even the original text itself—of this verse are uncertain. The English revisers give, I have raised up one from the north, and he is come; from the rising of the sun one that calleth upon My Name. This is probably the true syntax.7373   And that which runs: ... he is come, from the rising of the sun he calleth upon My name (Bredenkamp) is wrong. But in what tense is the verb to call, and what does calling upon My name mean? In the Old Testament the phrase is used in two senses,—to invoke or adore, and to proclaim or celebrate the name of a person.7474   The former of these in ch. lxiv. 7; the latter in xliv. 5. As long as scholars understood that Cyrus was a monotheist, there was a temptation to choose the former of these meanings, and to find in the verse Jehovah's claim upon the Persian, as a worshipper of Himself, the One True God. But this interpretation131 received a shock from the discovery of a proclamation of Cyrus after his entry into Babylon, in which he invokes the names of Babylonian deities, and calls himself their "servant."7575   Translation of the Cyrus-cylinder in "Cyrus et le Retour de l'Exil," by Halévy, Revue des Études Juives, No. 1, 1880. Of course his doing so in the year 538 does not necessarily discredit a description of him as a monotheist eight years before. Between 548 and 546—the probable date of ch. xli.—a prophet might in all good faith have hailed as a worshipper of Jehovah a Persian who still stood in the rising of the sun,—who had not yet issued from the east and its radiant repute of a religion purer than the Babylonian; although eight years afterwards, from motives of policy, the same king acknowledged the gods of his new subjects. This may be; but there is a more natural way out of the difficulty. Is it fair to lay upon the expression, calleth on My name, so precise a meaning as that of a strict monotheism? Some have turned to the other use of the verb, and, taking it in the future tense, have translated, who shall proclaim or celebrate My name,—which Cyrus surely did, when, in the name of Jehovah, he drew up the edict for the return of the Jews to Palestine.7676   Ezra i. 2; 2 Chron. xxxvi. 22, 23. But do we need to put even this amount of meaning upon the phrase? In itself it is vague, but it also stands parallel to another vague phrase: I have raised up one from the north, and he is come; from the sunrising one who calleth on My name. Taken in apposition to the phrase he is come, calleth on My name may mean no more than that, answering to the instigation of Jehovah, and owning His impulse, Cyrus by his career proclaimed or celebrated Jehovah's name. In any case, we have said enough to show that, in our comparative ignorance of what Cyrus' faith was, and in face of the elastic use of the phrase to call on the name of, it is quite unwarrantable to maintain that the prophet must have meant a strict monotheist, and therefore absurd to draw the inference that the prophet was incorrect. A way has been attempted out of the difficulty by slightly altering the text, and so obtaining the version, I have raised up one from the north, and he is come; from the sunrise I call him by name.7777   אקרא בשמו for יקֹרא בשמי. This is a change which is in harmony with ch. xlv. 3, 4, but has otherwise no evidence in its favour.

« Prev Chapter VII. God: An Argument from History.… Next »

| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |