There are some passages of the Bible that I love more than others, and some books and sections of books that I find more refreshing than others. Somewhere near the top of my list has to be Isaiah, and especially chapters 40-55. I’ve loved these chapters ever since I first read them, one week between Christmas and New Year in flat looking over the English Channel and Dorset sandstone cliffs as an 18 year old student. I found in those chapters then, and have done ever since an overwhelming sense of the grandeur and glory of God, and of his mercy and grace to a sinful people.
Isaiah 40 marks a turning point in the book of Isaiah. In 1-39 the book is addressed to the people of Judah while they are under threat from the Assyrians. Then, at the start of chapter 40, the scene switches dramatically and the book is now addressed to the exiles from Judah who are living in Babylon, after the promised judgement of 1-39 has happened.
Now that judgement has fallen, and the exile has happened God’s Word to his people changes tone. God announces that he will bring his people back to the land in an action that echoes his deliverance of the people out of Egypt. The verses that caught my attention were these:
Is. 40:6 A voice says, “Cry!”
And I said,* “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass, and all its beauty* is like the flower of the field.
Is. 40:7 The grass withers, the flower fades
when the breath of the LORD blows on it;
surely the people are grass.
Is. 40:8 The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever.
Is. 40:9 Go on up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good news;*
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good news;*
lift it up, fear not;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Behold your God!”
Notice here that there are two voices. One is “a voice” – God’s, the other is the prophet, who speaks for Jerusalem (v9) to the cities of Judah. The ESV stops the prophet’s words at the end of the question in v6 “what shall I cry” – but I wonder if they actually go on to the end of v7 (Hebrew doesn’t have any quotation marks!) – as if the prophet is actually asking what the purpose of proclaiming this word is when people are so fragile. God’s voice then breaks back in as he reminds the prophet of what he is to say.
At this point it is important to remind ourselves of the state of Judah – exiled in Babylon, miles from home. The temple is in ruins and everything has been taken from it. Pagan nations have been able to enter the Holy Place and carry off everything from it with impunity. The LORD has been shown to be powerless – by all the standards of the day. What message would we give them? How would we think they need to be talked to?
What about us when we are at our lowest? What do we think people need to hear on a Sunday morning in church when life is crushing them? Is it good advice? Is it techniques on how to deal with our problems better? Is it just to be listened to and held?
The message given here is simple. In Hebrew it is in two words, in English 3. “Behold your God”. We don’t use “behold” these days – and it means various things. Here it means “look! pay attention!” – and in particular pay attention to your God. The people need, above all else, a fresh vision of God.
To those who are in exile, miles from home, thinking that their God is defeated the prophet’s words come. And this is what they say in summary:
Is. 40:10 Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
Is. 40:11 He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young.
The rest of the chapter goes on to unpack these words but their key message is right here. From 40:10 – God is coming, and he is in charge. He is the one who has power and he brings his reward with him. God is able to deal with the exile. The songwriter of Mighty to Save got it from here – our God is indeed mighty to save. Can God deal with the problem of the people’s captivity – and, as we see more and more in Isaiah – their sin? The answer of Isaiah 40 is a resounding yes.
But a powerful saving God might still be a remote God, a distant God. The message of 40:10 is that God cares. The mighty God is the God who cares. He carries his lambs. He gently leads the mothers with young. He is good. He is compassionate. He is faithful. He is kind.
This is our God. In the midst of turmoil this is what we need most of all. We need God. The chapter goes on to remind us of how creation shows us God’s greatness before finishing with these words. Words we need to hear. Words that need to sink deeply into our hearts.
Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the LORD,
and my right is disregarded by my God”?
Have you not known?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.
It struck me here that the promise involves God’s people becoming more like God here. God does not get faint or grow weary. Even the strongest of people (youths and young men) get faint and weary and fall exhausted. But those who wait for the LORD will renew their strength. Here waiting for the LORD is not about some super spiritual attitude I develop by my own strength. No, the one who waits for the LORD is the one who knows that they have reached the end of their resources, the one who knows they have nothing else to give and no-where else to go. It is that person, the one who knows their emptiness and need of the LORD who goes back to God – it is that person who receives the strength to go on.
The last verse reads literally “They shall go up – wings like eagles” – I don’t think the wings are ours. Elsewhere it talks about God carrying Israel on eagles wings – the picture is of being lifted up by God. We will receive new strength to go on. Sometimes that new strength is the direct carrying by God when we can do nothing. Sometimes it is the ability to run without being weary, and sometimes to walk without fainting.
I love that the chapter finishes with the idea of walking. I think if we were writing it we’d talk of a victorious ascent from walking to running to flying, like an aeroplane. But God’s way is that he lifts us up from the pit on wings like eagles, and when he sets our feet on solid ground we can then get through the seasons of running and the seasons of walking. Maybe it is a bit like when I am walking with my children. Sometimes one of them will be tired, and want to be carried for a bit. So I lean down and pick them up. We hug, we talk, I point out a flower or some feature, and they get down again ready for the next part of the journey, with a fresh spring in their step.
Walking doesn’t sound glamorous. But this is what the power of the almighty Creator who cares for us with such love and tenderness does – it enables us to walk on with Him.
In a sermon I listened to online recently the preacher quoted these words of an old hymn – I was particularly struck by v2 so I leave you with this by Annie Flint:
He giveth more grace as our burdens grow greater,
He sendeth more strength as our labors increase;
To added afflictions He addeth His mercy,
To multiplied trials He multiplies peace.
When we have exhausted our store of endurance,
When our strength has failed ere the day is half done,
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources
Our Father’s full giving is only begun.
Fear not that thy need shall exceed His provision,
Our God ever yearns His resources to share;
Lean hard on the arm everlasting, availing;
The Father both thee and thy load will upbear.
His love has no limits, His grace has no measure,
His power no boundary known unto men;
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus
He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.