When things get tough – what do we rely on for help? Who do we rely on for help?
At this point in the story of Israel, things have been looking bleak. They are a conquered and exiled people, without a homeland, without a temple representing the presence of God among them. Isaiah 40 announces hope – but at the moment, what they can see and experience is still more of the same.
Isaiah 41 opens with an address to the Phoenician cities of the coast, who also had been reduced to vassalage to Babylon – a call to become attentive to what God is about to do; raise up a power from the east who will overthrow nations and kings. This upheaval causes concern throughout the region, from the coasts to ‘the ends of the earth’.
In response the people gather together – but what they focus on, who they look to for help, makes all the difference.
One response back then was to create idols; creating images of gods that they then looked to to help them. Maybe that sounds ridiculous; certainly Isaiah points out the folly in creating an idol and looking to it for help. But idolatry at its heart is investing our hope and worship – that which we give worth to – in anything but God.
When push comes to shove, what is our hope in? Our savings? Our military? In doctors and medicine? In ourselves? In an influential or skilled leader? Those can all be used for good, but none of them hold ultimate hope for us. Idolatry in the ancient world looked to other gods; not just different in name, but in character – to be their hope. One friend of mine accuses people of faith as having invented an imaginary friend and calling it ‘God’.
But Isaiah turns this around; calling us not to trust in the things we’ve created or invented and invested with our hope, or even to trust ultimately in ourselves, but to One who has created and chosen us. To place our hope in One who is active throughout the world, saying to us:
You are my servant, whom I have chosen.
I have not cast you off.
Do not fear, for I am with you,
do not be afraid, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you
I will help you
I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.
In the midst of their exile, God has not forgotten his people or his promise – to work through this small group of people to bless the world; that their redemption would ultimately mean a freedom and redemption for all.
Indeed, though they struggled to see beyond the immediacy of their situation in exile, though they were lowly and powerless like insects, God has provided water for them, water in the desert, preserving them in their exile so that the world would know that God has done it. He invites them to rejoice in this, to recognize and celebrate what God has done in the midst of their circumstances.
The idols have proven powerless: they cannot speak to the future or make sense of the past (v.22), they cannot bless or curse. They have not foreseen what God is about to do – to raise up Cyrus of Persia, who will overthrow the immense Babylonian empire and return the captives to Jerusalem.
One of the pivot points of faith is whether or not there is a bigger purpose to this world, a bigger story that we are a part of, that we are a part of and yet did not begin with us. The story of God in scripture declares an emphatic ‘yes!’ — and invites us to look to God for our hope in this world.
- What is the difference between doing all we can in a situation and trusting in ourselves instead of God?
- Where do we find it difficult to see God’s blessings in the midst of our present circumstances? How can we look for signs of hope?
- What surprising ways has God worked in your life as you think back?
(Photo of an inscription by Assyrian king Esharddon in Lebanon circa 670 BCE – about 100 years before Cyrus II of Persia began his rise to power)