Have you ever considered what it was like to be cooped up in the ark for a year, after 40 days of rain? Can you imagine the work of feeding the animals and yes, the cleaning their stalls? Or what it was like to be stuck in slavery in Egypt with a promise of a deliverer and a return to Canaan land, but a generation passes with no one showing up? Or consider the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness before possessing the promised land? The sheer challenges, disappointments and frustrations would impact the best of us. 40 is a symbolic number in the Bible and it speaks of a time of testing. Like all tests, endurance and strength are needed. The temptation is to succumb, to give up. After a while weariness sets in.
We are currently living in a time of testing. We all are experiencing a restricted lifestyle, with a longing for end to come and a return to some sense of normalcy. I sense an increasing weariness in people. The temptation is to complain, fight, or faint. Is there a place where we can recharge our soul and find renewed strength in such a time as this? We may wonder within ourselves why God has not seen our plight and rescued us from this prison of restriction or whatever trial that we are facing. The only problem of surrendering to our emotions is that it will not bring the needed hope and comfort that we so passionately long for. We often fail to remember that our soul is the object of a great battle. We are under attack from unseen spiritual forces endeavouring to bring weariness, discouragement, and despair. Like the Israelites facing the giant Goliath’s taunts for 40 days, courage is needed, but like these soldiers our hearts melt with fear. God promises to meet the cry of our hearts.
We are not talking about the more superficial needs that are closest to the surface in each of our lives. What times of testing reveals to us is the deeper and inner longing of our soul. The desire for unconditional love and acceptance, a sense of security, a confidence in the future, and a measure of worth, dignity and value as an individual. God hears that cry and can meet that need thereby giving each of us a sense of wholeness. Augustine of Hippo [354-430 A.D.] was right when he penned those immortal words in the fourth century in his autobiography which was written as a prayer. “…because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our hearts are unquiet until it rests in you.”[i] The problem is that many are not resting in the love and grace of our Lord. Intellectually we may know that this is a promise to us, yet it seems to mock us. We long for it, but it may not be our experience at this moment in our lives. Our soul’s cry could easily be reflected by the words of that ancient prophet Isaiah when he wrote: “Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the LORD; my cause is disregarded by my God (Isaiah 40:27)?” Or as we would say it in our terminology, where is God in this present mess? How long will this continue? The real problem may not be that God is not there, but rather a lack of understanding of who our heavenly Father really is. We rarely, see ourselves in our problems, rather we blame and become upset with God because he seems so indifferent to our plight, our pain, our present predicament.
Could it be that in our world we take ourselves far too seriously, and God not seriously enough? Could it be that our world originates with ourselves at the centre and God is somewhere on the side lines? Could it be that we have lost sight of God’s majesty, His greatness; which as J. I. Packer states, “…stimulates the Christian’s instincts of trust and worship.”[ii] Could it be that we pursued the false substitutes and trappings of worldly values and found them empty and blamed God for the emptiness in our souls?
There are moments in all our lives that we need a message of comfort. A message that will help us transcend our momentary afflictions and lift our hearts to new highs and new hopes. Israel was experiencing just such a time when Isaiah penned chapter 40. She was living in exile wondering if God had abandoned her. In Isaiah chapter 40 we gain a new glimpse at the majesty of God that brings renewed hope and vision. When we experience a vision of God, it will transform our worn, broken, and empty hearts and fill us with incredible hope and joy. Our understanding regarding the nature and character of God determines how we respond not only to God, but also our current challenges. In Isaiah 40, we discover something of the awesomeness of God. The literary genre of this text is poetic in nature and designed to capture our imagination and move our emotions. There are four aspects of the nature and character of God expressed in this chapter that if they capture our attention will allow us to exchange our weakness and weariness for God’s strength.
THE FIRST ASPECT OF GOD’S CHARACTER THAT ISAIAH FOCUSES ON IS GOD’S ETERNAL NATURE
Integrity is being consistent with what we say. In other words, what we say is consistent with who we are. We know that is true about God. What God says He will do, because of who He is. God’s word is eternal in both nature and scope. “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever (Isaiah 40:8).”
Words are incredibly powerful. They can discern the very intents of our hearts, our motives. Words are spoken by God to create faith, life, hope and healing. They can truly move things that seem impossible to become reality (cf. Romans 10:9-10).” Jesus taught that the effect of our words – good or evil, believing or unbelieving – go on eternally. Not only do God’s words live forever, but also our words live on. We underestimate the power of words and their effects.
But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.
For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.[iii]
We also underestimate what God has to say about our circumstances and situations. Circumstances change, but God’s word stays the same. Too often in the pressure of circumstances that are difficult and uncomfortable, we forget the promises of God. Too often we allow the words of people to affect us more than the Word of God, and his promises. We forget that God’s word is more real, has more substance, will endure the test of time; whereas the circumstances come and go. Let us hang on to God’s word, rather than allowing our circumstances to determine our sense of well-being or allowing our circumstances to overwhelm us.
Here in Isaiah 40, Isaiah is writing about the promise of Israel coming out of the Babylonian captivity. Isn’t it interesting that God’s discipline was designed to produce peace in our lives? After a parent disciplines a child there is a need for reassurance. Israel had her sins addressed and needed these words of comfort, which are offered to her through God’s prophet.
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
We must recognize that the effects of violating God’s moral law always brings destructive issues into our lives. Now, they had come to that realization, God was speaking words of encouragement. God does speak tenderly into our lives after times of testing and trial. This is also true after times of discipline. God wants to reassure us of his love. The message is one of restoration. Too often our personal sin brings devastation in our lives. Then in brokenness we start over again hearing the tenderly spoken words of God. He is promising to raise up those in the valley of despair and devastation, while at the same time levelling those that would exalt themselves.
Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.[iv]
It is as we experience the power and presence of God restoring our lives, that we have something to say. After a season of correction and restoration, we have a compulsion to speak into the lives of others who are struggling, going their own way. That was King David’s experience after his failure with Bathsheba. He states it in such a compelling way in Ps. 51.
Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn back to you.[v]
Here we are challenged to realize that our earthly life is temporary, but God is eternal. So often in our day to day lives, we forget that powerful truth, and when we do, we start to live as if what is temporary is all that life is about, rather than living with the deeper understanding that this earthly life is only a small aspect of our lives and that which is eternal should be a deeper consideration. Isaiah reminds us that this earthly life is so fragile and temporal.
A voice says, Cry out. And I said, What shall I cry? All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.
You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, Here is your God![vi]
We are being reminded. God is here and he will come again. “Here is your God!” God is able. He is coming in power. He is coming back. He will bring his rewards with him.
THE SECOND ASPECT OF GOD’S NATURE AND CHARACTER THAT ISAIAH FOCUSES ON IS HIS UNLIMITED POWER
When we think of power, we seldom think of power under control. We think of raw power, brute power, but here God’s power is described in two ways. First, it is described in its meekness to effectively minister to others in need.
See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.
He tends his flock like a shepherd. He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.[vii]
Notice that his power is also gentle. That is what meekness is all about, power under control. He is a restoring God. He is a nurturing God. He is the Shepherd that is guiding the flock and gathering them close to his heart. One thing I have noticed is that you only develop confidence in someone’s word based on the knowledge of their character and ability, and their love and concern for you as a person. What a beautiful description of both. The caring God, able to carry out what He promises.
How many times have I heard the tragic story of how power is used to abuse another? We hear of it all the time. Someone in a position of trust and authority using their position for their own needs rather than to serve others. One thing we can be assured of is God uses his power and authority to minister to us. But Isaiah also describes the limitlessness and immensity of God’s power. He measures the waters of the earth in an expression of speech that we can understand. Can you imagine measuring out the oceans of the earth by placing them in your hand? Or placing the mountains of the earth on a weight scale? These expressions speak of the grandeur of God.
Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens? Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance?[viii]
One of the issues that we are faced with in our culture today is the exaltation of humanity, and the diminishment if not the very neglect of God. Yet here the prophet is challenging us with a picture of the insignificance of humanity in relationship to God.
Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales; he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust.
Before him all the nations are as nothing; they are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing.
To whom, then, will you compare God? What image will you liken him?[ix]
What a captivating picture. All the nations are equated as to one drop of water in a bucket. This picture is a relative one in relationship to the majesty of God, for God himself speaks highly of humanity as the crowning achievement of his creation (cf. Psalm 8). Isaiah continues to show that humanity in its finest is still no match for the incomparable greatness of God.
Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded?
He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.
He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing. [The powerful men are no match for God]
No sooner are they planted, no sooner are they sown, no sooner do they take root in the ground, than he blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.
To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.
Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.[x]
What is Isaiah saying to us here? When we compare the immensity of creation or the great men of the ages, they are no match for God’s power and strength.
Patrick O’Boyle recalls in the late 1940’s, appearances of Frank Sheed, the Catholic author and publisher: Sheed could be devastating with hecklers. Once, after Sheed had described the extraordinary order and design to be seen in the universe, a persistent challenger retorted by pointing to all the world’s ills, and ended shouting, ‘I could make a better universe than your God!’ To which Sheed replied in his characteristic wit: ‘I won’t ask you to make a universe, but would you make a rabbit just to establish confidence?[xi]
THE THIRD ASPECT OF GOD’S NATURE AND CHARACTER THAT ISAIAH FOCUSES ON IS HIS UNSEARCHABLE WISDOM
Who can fully grasp what God is doing? In our limited understanding, we will never fully grasp how God works out His purposes in our world.
Who can fathom the Spirit of the LORD, or instructed him as his counsellor?
Whom did the LORD consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was it that taught him knowledge or showed him the path of understanding?[xii]
It is said that Saint Augustine, the father of theologians, was walking on the shore of the ocean one day pondering the mystery of the trinity. He came upon a little boy who was playing with a seashell. The youngster would scoop a hole in the sand, then go down to the waves and get his shell full of water and pour it into the hole he had made.
Augustine said, ‘What are you doing, my little fellow?’ The boy replied, ‘I am going to pour the sea into that hole.’ ‘Ah,’ said Augustine, ‘That is what I have been trying to do. Standing at the ocean of infinity, I have attempted to grasp it with my finite mind.’”[xiii]
Too often we question what is happening in our lives. We wonder what God is doing. Of course, He is aware of what is occurring in our lives. The all-wise God knows the course that each of us must run to grow in our relationship with Him. He is aware of the pressures that we are undergoing. We need to wait for God rather than try and take things into our own wisdom. The Scriptures remind us of one of the great spiritual battles that we can learn about regarding the issue of suffering. In the book of Job, we learn that he lost his children, wealth, respect of his community, health and found himself struggling in his marriage. Job, whom God speaks of as a blameless man is confused and senses that God is his adversary. He questions God and desires to place God on the witness stand in order to ask what is happening in his life and why? But God rebukes Job for questioning His wisdom and power. God does not owe us an answer. He is not accountable to us, His creation. Yet, in a time of weariness, brokenness, confusion, and pain we lose sight of the grace and love of God in our lives. Testing challenges our confidence and faith in God. At the conclusion of the book we see God challenging Job.
Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm. He said:
Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it?[xiv]
God explains to Job that if Job is able to understand the mysteries of creation, then God would explain the mystery of what was transpiring in Job’s life. God is in control of the destinies of men and women. He controls the nations. We need to remember this when our personal worlds are falling apart. God is still in control. Too often we are looking elsewhere for our source of meaning and security in life. The problem with doing that is we are placing a person, or a thing ahead of God. People and things will ultimately fail us. God is the only one capable of keeping His word completely. He is the only one that has the character as well as the ability to do what He says. He challenges us in verses 16-20, to see if any man-made resource can ultimately take His place. The answer is obviously, NO!
THE FINAL ASPECT OF GOD’S NATURE AND CHARACTER THAT ISAIAH FOCUSES ON IS HIS STRENGTH IS EXCHANGEABLE
Remember, the background in which Isaiah is writing here. It is a devastating time in the life of the nation. It has been destroyed and taken into captivity. That which they had trust in, namely false idols had totally failed them. They felt that God had abandoned them. Now we come to the heart of the message.
Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall;
But those who hope [some translations say wait] in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.[xv]
When I think of an eagle, I am reminded of the ability of eagles to use their God-given ability to soar above the storms. Also, eagles have incredible vision. They can fly high and see their prey down below. When we are soaring spiritually it impacts our ability to handle the storms of life, it also suggests that we have incredible vision. People who have lost their spiritual vision are struggling, they are fainting.
The analogy is comparing the energy and resources of the youth, which is generally when we are physically at our best. Now the writer is pointing out that as humans we will falter and fail. Our hope needs to be in God. We can exchange our weakness and weariness for God’s strength.
God graciously makes his vitality available to the failing of the earth. But does the receiving depend on any particular condition? Only one, and it is specified here: waiting on the LORD. This expression implies two things: complete dependence on God and a willingness to allow him to decide the terms. To wait on him is to admit that we have no other help, either in ourselves or in another. Therefore we are helpless until he acts. By the same token, to wait on him is to declare our confidence in his eventual action on our behalf. Thus waiting (qawa) in Hebrew is not merely killing time but a life of confident expectation. Those who give up their own frantic efforts to save themselves and turn expectantly to God will be able to replace or exchange their worn-out strength for new strength.[xvi]
Our lives will never be effective apart from waiting on God. How can we handle the pressures and challenges of this life? We need to look up! We need to be reminded of the nature and character of Almighty God. We need to stop looking at our circumstances, the diminishing words of others. We need to stop looking solely to ourselves. When we consider the eternal nature of God’s word, His unlimited power, His unsearchable wisdom, and His willingness to exchange His strength for our weakness, we need to come to Him. We need to cry out to Him when we feel weak, exhausted, confused, perplexed, and remind ourselves of the greatness of our God. He will sustain us! He will strengthen us. He will exchange His strength of our weariness and weakness.
[i] Saint Augustine, The Confessions: Translated by Maria Boulding, (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 3
[ii] J. I. Packer, Knowing God, (Downers Grove, Il: Intervarsity Press, 1973), 73.
[iii] Matthew 12:36-37, New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[iv] Isaiah 40:4-5.
[v] Psalm 51:10-13.
[vi] Isaiah 40:6-9.
[vii] Isaiah 40:10-11.
[viii] Isaiah 40:12.
[ix] Isaiah 40:15, 17-18.
[x] Isaiah 40:21-26.
[xi] Christianity Today (4-23-99), reprinted in “To Illustrate Plus,” Leadership Journal (21.1), 69.
[xii] Isaiah 40:13-14.
[xiii] Augustine of Hippo, as quoted by Michael Green, ed. Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, (Grand Rapids, Mi: Baker Book House, 1989), 389.
[xiv] Job 38:1-5.
[xv] Isaiah 40:28-31
[xvi] John N. Oswalt, The Book Of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66, The New International Commentary of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 74.