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Isaiah 40:21

Have ye not known? Have ye not heard? Hath it not been told you from the beginning? Have ye not understood from the foundations of the earth?

It is best to regard these questions as directed to worshippers of idols with whose vile doings the prophet is occupied in the preceding verse, but directed to idol worshippers for the benefit of God’s distressed, discouraged but believing and penitent people in the captivity of the exile. This benefit lies in the answer to these questions, particularly in the truth about God that underlies this answer—an answer that the Lord Himself supplies. Of course, this entire discourse of twenty six chapters was communicated to the prophet for the benefit of this people, the remnant according to the election of grace. The purpose was to stimulate and sustain its faith in God, in His ability to provide Him a way whereby to lead His people out of their captivity—deliver them from the clutch of the world-power as represented at the time by the kings of Babylon—and to bring them home. This must constantly be kept in mind. This second half of Isaiah’s prophecy is preeminently a book of comfort for the church in Babylon. 

The tense of the verbs of the first line of the above-cited verse is imperfect (the verbs of the Hebrew text), so that it is best to translate here, “Will you not know? Will you not hear?” Thus rendered, the two clauses express the indignation of the prophet, of the Lord Himself, at the hardness of heart of idolaters, the heathen, and the impenitent apostate Jews in exile. They refuse to know and to hear, despite the fact that it has been told them from the beginning and that by the light of reason they understood from the foundations of the earth. 

The preposition from is not found in the original, but to my mind it is plain from the immediate context that it is nevertheless there by implication. 

Have you not understood? Understood what? The answer is contained in the two verses that follow.

22. He that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, And the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers: He that stretched out the heavens as a curtain, And spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in: 

23. He that bringeth the princes to nothing: The judges of the earth as vanity makes.

The sentence is without a predicate. The context shows that this must be? “Hath made the earth.” Who? Not their idols, the work of men’s hands, but He that is sitting on the circle of the earth from where its inhabitants seem like grasshoppers, stretches out the heavens as a curtain and as a tent to dwell in, and reduces the rulers of the earth to nothingness,—He made the earth. And this fact has been transmitted from the foundations of the earth, from Adam on, and preserved in its purest form in the Mosaic account of creation. Besides, the invisible things of God are clearly seen since the creation of the world through the things that are made, even His everlasting power and divinity. And these things are manifest in them, so that they are without excuse for giving glory and thanks to their idols instead of to the true God. 

The circle of the earth is here not the globe of the earth but the earth as it presents itself to the eye of its inhabitants, namely as enclosed on every hand by the circle of the horizon. High above the same the Lord is enthroned. From this elevation the people appear as grasshoppers. This is figurative language. Its purpose is to impress with the fact of God’s exaltedness and of man’s nothingness before Him. 

This idea of the absolute sublimity of the Lord is made still more impressive by a description of the ease with which He brings the great ones of the earth to complete and thorough ruin.

24 Yea; they were not planted: Yea, they were not sown: Yea, their stock took not root in the earth, When He also blew upon them and they withered, And a tempest bore them away as stubble.

The meaning is, that no more are the worldly rulers planted and sown and does their stock take root in the earth, that is, scarcely do they succeed in establishing themselves in the earth, when the Lord with no effort at all, simply by blowing upon them, brings them to naught so completely that they cannot anywhere be found. Who but God alone is capable of such a doing? Not only that but the only and very reason that He can thus dispose of the rulers is that, existing as they do by His power, they are less than nothing before Him. And their idols are the work of men’s hands. And so once again,

25. To whom will ye liken me: Or shall I be equal? Saith the holy one.

Verily, to whom in heaven or on earth or in the waters under the earth will ye liken me? There can be but one right answer. To no one. I God am only. I am God and none else.

This, of course, is the answer of faith, of all such only in whose heart is shed abroad God’s love. Fools persist in giving glory to the idols, to the not-gods of their own making. But that they may be fully without excuse, the prophet directs to them a final word.

25. Lift up your eyes and see who hath created these, the stars, Who? He that bringeth out by number their host; All by name He calls by the greatness of His might, For He is strong in power, Not one is missing.

The stars are His creation. How otherwise would they come forth as a result of His calling each one of them by name? Truly, to His power there is no limit. He is the incomparable God. 

How unspeakably privileged His captive and afflicted people there in Babylon were to possess Him as their God! But they were deriving no comfort from that fact. For in their unbelief they were harboring in their souls wrong thoughts about Him as is clear from their complaint that the prophet voices in order that he may reply to it.

27. Why sayest thou O Jacob, and speakest thou O Israel, My way is hidden from the Lord. And my judgment is passed over from my God?

To awaken in them the awareness of how precious they are in God’s sight and how secure by reason of His promises to them, he addresses them by the names that were born by their ancestral father. The meaning of the name “Jacob” is heel-lifter. A “Jacob” is one who in the way of the good fight of faith—a faith that identifies him with Christ in whom he has the victory—displaces the reprobate and inherits the earth. The name “Israel” means, one who wrestles with God and prevails. An “Israel” is one that in prayer wrestles with God for the blessing and is made to prevail, that is, He receives of God the blessing. He is thus made to prevail also over men, the adversary. That is what those captives were by God’s mercy. They were Jacob-Israel. 

But Jacob-Israel, God’s people in Babylon, were unbelieving. And in the despondency of their unbelief they went to reasoning about God as though He were a man, ascribing to Him the weaknesses and limitations of a man. As in their minds the Lord was associated with the temple in Jerusalem that was in ruins they allowed themselves to be directed in their contemplations of Him by the feeling that had stolen over their souls that from sheer weariness or lack of interest He was no longer taking any notice of their course of life, of their warfare in Babylon and the sufferings that it entailed, and that He had abandoned them to the enemy. The hope that the Lord would judge between them and their captives and deliver them out of the adversary’s hand had faded. Perhaps He was unable or lacked the proper penetration, the necessary knowledge of the required measures. For Babylon was strong. As a world-power it seemed unshakable. If it was to be made to pass away, it would have to be by a miracle. Besides, it was a long way home. And the journey would have to be made by foot. And the way was rough and crooked. It led over hills and through deep valleys. Would they have the strength, courage and endurance, they and their wives and their little ones? There was no end to their doubts and fears and misgivings. Yet in their unbelief their souls mourned after the Lord. And they loved Jerusalem better than life. I speak now of then remnant according to the election of grace and not of the Jews who chose to remain when the leave to return home was finally granted. To the former the prophet tenders a reply that was calculated to shame their unbelief and revive their faith in God.

28. Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard? Eternal God, Jehovah, creator of the ends of the earth, He does not tire, He does not become weary, There is no searching to His understanding. 

29. He giveth to the weary strength, And to them that have no strength He multiplieth strength. 

30. Faint the youths and grow weary, The choice men utterly fall:

31. But they that wait upon the Lord renew their strength, They run and do not weary; They walk and do not faint.

God is eternal, without beginning and end, which must needs imply that He is the everlasting fountain of His own blessed existence and as the infinitely good God the overflowing fountain of all good. God is He, the I am, the creator of the ends of the earth, of the far-off land of their captivity. It is His creature. By His will it exists. Here, too, He reigns supreme. How can He be faint and tire? How can there be any diminishing of Hisstrength? How can He want penetration, necessary knowledge of the measures to be adopted? How can there be any limit to the power of such a God that He should not be able to save? And He gives strength for the journey home to His people who, because they know that they are without strength, seek all their strength with Him. And as they possess in Him an inexhaustible source of strength through Christ in His Spirit, they walk and run without getting tired. Not one of them falls not again to rise. All shall appear in Zion. Not one shall be missing. Now the prophet was not telling them things that they did not know and had not heard. They did know. They had heard. But the prophet will continue preaching to them God as revealed in Christ’s face, in order that He may become very real to them. 

The conqueror from the east is operative as the Lord’s agentIsaiah 41:1-7.

1. Be silent before me, O islands; and let the nations renew strength; Let them draw nigh, yea let them speak. Let us (I, the Lord, and you nations) come together for judgment. 

2. (Tell Me) who raised him up from the east, With righteousness called him to his feet, Gave before him the nations, And made him to tread down kings? His sword made them as dust, And his bow as driven stubble, 

3. He pursued them and passed in peace, By the way he had not gone with his feet. 

4. Who hath wrought and done this? He that called the generations from the beginning, I the Lord, the first, And with the last; I am He.

This is more conclusive evidence that with the Lord there is power to save. The spoiler of nations from the east is the Cyrus of subsequent chapters. By him the Babylonian empire that had been built on the ruins of the kingdom of Assyria was to be brought to naught. In describing his military successes the prophet uses the perfect tense. For though his appearance in history was still a matter of the distant future, his achievements were as good as accomplished, seeing that the mouth of the Lord had spoken it. The great one was to be active as the agent of the Lord. What would prove this to God’s believing people in Babylon is that the Lord had foretold his appearance. This would be the incontrovertible evidence that the Lord raised him up and was performing his work through him. God wanted his people to know this. Not along that it was their only comfort but they also had to praise him, which they could only do in the knowledge that it was he who had wrought and done it. He the Lord, the first and the last.

To make the truth about God more impressive, the prophet is made to present the Lord as proposing that He and the nations come together for judgment, that is, controversy. Let them say who raised up him from the East (Cyrus). But there is no reply. For even the controversy commences the Lord commands that they be silent and be instructed of him, hear His answer, which is, “He hath wrought and done this, He that called the generations from the beginning, I the Lord, . . .”

The marvelous work that the Lord accomplished through Cyrus filled the nations that lay within the scope of his conquests with a great dread.

5. The isles saw it, and feared; The ends of the earth were afraid.

But what was their reaction? Instead of giving Him the glory, they took refuge to their own gods. To render them favorable they hastened to make new images to their glory.

5c. (They) drew near and came.

6. They helped everyone his neighbor; Andeveryone said to his brother, Be strong. . . . . . 

7. So the engraver encouraged the founder, And he that made smooth with the hammer him that smote the anvil, Saying, it is ready for sodering; And he fastened it with nails that it should not be moved.

The prophet goes into this detail of idol manufacture to bring out the absurdity of idol worship. Here the workmen appear as encouraging each other, the reason being that there was haste.