Reflections on Isaiah 40

In our celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, we rejoice because the powers of evil, of sin, of death itself, are shown not to get the last word.

Our last reading in Isaiah told of the situation around 701 BCE, when the armies of Assyria, bold and arrogant had conquered all but the city of Jerusalem, standing besieged and alone, without strength and without hope.  King Hezekiah had responded to the situation with prayer and repentance, and God had intervened – Jerusalem was spared.  But only for a time.  The core problems in Jerusalem had not changed; idolatry, violence, abuse of the poor and vulnerable, using religiosity to mask the other issues.  God warned Hezekiah that although there would be a reprieve from the Assyrians, the Babylonians would rise up and eventually conquer Jerusalem, taking its people into captivity.  Hezekiah echoed so many in our time in his gladness that at least it wouldn’t happen during his lifetime.

In 586 BCE, Babylon destroyed the city of Jerusalem and many of its inhabitants are sent into exile.  What follows in the Book of Isaiah reflects not only this time of exile, but shows how exile does not have the last word.  God has not abandoned the descendants of Abraham and Sarah.

In reflecting on these passages as followers of Christ, we can hardly help but see them in ‘stereo’; not only reflecting the return from exile which began around 538 BCE, but how Jesus’ ministry and mission were seen not only in light of the Exodus, but as the deepest fulfillment of this sense of return of God’s presence after the exile.

To appreciate the promises here; for the time of the exiles and in light of Christ, it’s important to understand that the exile was traumatic not only in a physical / geopolitical way – the loss of homes, of livelihoods, the conquering of their nation, the loss of leadership, being moved to a foreign land and living there as outsiders — but in terms of how that challenged their identity, particularly in a spiritual sense.  They had seen themselves as God’s people, and Jerusalem and its temple as their sign of God’s protection and presence.  What did it mean for them, for their understanding of God, when Jerusalem and the temple are destroyed?  Or as Ezekiel would put it in even starker terms; when the Glory of the LORD departs the temple because of the sin of the people.  Was God done with them?

No.  A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD….”  The LORD is returning, messengers are summoned to proclaim the good news.  The LORD will be like a shepherd gathering the lambs and gently leading the flock.  God has come to bring God’s people home.

Where do you see these themes picked up in the New Testament?

The largest section of this chapter (verses 12-26) focus on the power of God compared to the nations.  Assyria was powerful.  Babylon was powerful.  The powers of the world loomed large and threw their weight around, just as they do today.  But Isaiah compares them to grass, to dust on measuring scales.  God is the one who established the world and its order.  Using language reminiscent of God’s speech at the end of the book of Job, these words call us to remember God’s majesty and power.

Chapter 40 closes by bringing this description of God into focus: the people have considered themselves forsaken, that God has neglected what is just, and does not care what happens to them.  Can we think of times life has felt precisely like that?  That the challenges facing us or the powers of evil seem insurmountable, or that our concerns are too small for God to care about in the big picture?

To this, Isaiah gently chides: “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?”  (in other words: did you forget?)

The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. 

In contrast to nations that come and go, or even our own plans and lives that change, God and God’s purposes endure.

He does not faint or grow weary

God hasn’t gotten tired or given up on us.

His understanding is unsearchable

God’s understanding is like a deep well whose depths are unmeasurable.

He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.

There is an immensely important thread that runs through the story of God and humanity, and it is this: our real strength comes from God alone, whether we feel strong, or whether we are intensely aware of our weakness and need – the call is to trust in God who is able, and who is willing to help his people.

The key to that is the trust.  Do we trust God to provide what is needed, do we trust God to be present in the midst of the trials and struggles, or are we looking to God as a cosmic butler to give us what we want, the way we want it, when we want it?

The pivotal question in this chapter, in the midst of the promise, is indeed about waiting on and trusting in the way of the LORD who is coming.

Those who do, will find their strength renewed, will soar like eagles.

And to that encouraging image; remember that it is not by the incessant flapping of its wings that an eagle soars, but by riding the thermals that lift it up.

When we remember that the Hebrew word for Spirit is the same word as for wind (which is true in Greek as well) – it takes on even deeper meaning.