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One From the East and the North
In verse 2 God mentions sending someone "from the east." In verse 25 He says this person is "from the north" yet also "from the rising of the sun"—which again means from the east. So it is likely that the same person is being referred to. Yet who is this person?
First of all, we need to bear in mind that this whole section of prophecy is given to comfort the exiles of Judah and Israel—in both their ancient and future Babylonian captivities. It is describing a time of punishment on their enemies. Thus, the person being sent would seem to be a deliverer sent to free them from captivity. Indeed, most commentaries equate this person with the Persian ruler Cyrus, who conquered Babylon in 539 B.C. and released the Jewish exiles. This is a sensible conclusion since Cyrus is explicitly referred to by name in basically the same role just a few chapters later (Isaiah 44:28-45:4).
"One from the east refers to Cyrus, king of Persia (559-530 B.C.; see 46:11)" (Nelson Study Bible, note on 41:2). And as for "from the north…from the rising of the sun" and his calling on God's name (verse 25): "The conquest of Media by Cyrus (550 B.C.) made him master of the territories north of Babylon. Cyrus, who did not personally know God (Isaiah 45:4), nevertheless called on God's name when he released the exiles (2 Chronicles 36:23; Ezra 1:1-4)" (note on Isaiah 41:25).
Yet remarkably, Cyrus is referred to in chapters 44-45 as God's shepherd and God's anointed. He is clearly being used as a forerunner of Jesus Christ, who is sent by God the Father to ultimately free the exiles in the end time. Jesus comes from the north since God's throne is said to be "on the mount of the congregation on the farthest sides of the north" (Isaiah 14:13). And reference to Christ's coming from the east is found in the New Testament: "For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be" (Matthew 24:27).
Israel is referred to as God's servant—a servant being one who obeys a master, lord or employer. "The term was bestowed on the person chosen to administer and advance God's kingdom (Exodus 14:31; 2 Samuel 3:18). In chs. 40-55, the title of servant is bestowed implicitly on Cyrus (Isaiah 45:1-4) and explicitly on God's prophets (Isaiah 44:26), the nation of Israel (Isaiah 44:21; Isaiah 45:4) and particularly on the Lord Jesus Christ (Isaiah 42:1-4; Isaiah 52:13)" (Nelson, note on Isaiah 41:8). The Beyond Today Bible Commentary on the next chapter covers this in more depth.
Also in verse 8, the Israelites' blessing is shown to be rooted in their descent from Abraham, God's friend. This incredible designation occurs in two other places in Scripture (James 2:23; 2 Chronicles 20:7). This friendship with Abraham extends to his descendants, and it is what ultimately brings favor and victory to Israel.
Those who are incensed against Israel (Isaiah 41:11), or war against Israel (verse 12), will be as nothing. God will help His chosen people (verses 13-14). "Exiled Israel seemed as feeble and despicable as a worm (Job 25:6; Psalms 22:6 [the latter verse prophetic of Christ in His final suffering])" (Nelson, note on Isaiah 41:14).
But God will deliver Israel—and not merely through unilaterally destroying its enemies. The Israelites would themselves thresh the mountains and hills (verse 15), symbolic of the nations around them and their false religions (compare Isaiah 2:2; Deuteronomy 12:2; Jeremiah 3:21-23). "The lowly 'worm' (v. 14) would be transformed into a threshing sledge (Isaiah 28:27) that removes mountains, the symbols of opposition and the location of pagan temples and palaces (Micah 1:3-5)" (note on Isaiah 41:15). This did not happen in Israel's ancient return from Babylonian captivity—in which only a small percentage of Jews (and none of the northern tribes) returned to the Promised Land. This shows the prophecy to be primarily for the end time.
Furthermore, God is presented as performing miracles for the returning exiles, meeting their basic needs in the desert as He did for Israel of old (verses 17-20). This also did not happen in the ancient return from Babylonian captivity. But it will happen in Israel and Judah's future when Christ comes back. And Jesus will ultimately crush Israel's enemies, in a much greater way than Cyrus ever did (verse 25).
Finally, God satirically shows the foolishness of idolatry. Idols cannot proclaim the future. They can't proclaim anything at all. God challenges idols in verse 23 to "do good or evil." What He's really saying is: "Do anything!" But of course, they cannot. The nations were and still are mired in idolatry—or, in God's words, "wind and confusion" (verse 29). And this is not limited to overtly pagan religions. Idolatry and many pagan practices and ideas are deeply embedded in traditional Christianity, which is really a counterfeit religion mixing some authentic Christian concepts with ancient paganism. Thankfully, Christ is coming to set all aright.