Isaiah 40:1-11, Isaiah 40:29-31

It is so tempting in a passage like Isaiah 40:1-11 to read it immediately through the lens of the New Testament. But today I am going to try to avoid this temptation and look at it first and primarily in its original Old Testament context; as hard as that may be for a New Testament professor.

I love this text because the focus is on God and His grace. It is about His reliability in the face of Israel’s unreliability. It shows God’s loving faithfulness in spite of Israel’s self centeredness and faithlessness. It’s the kind of passage that helps me relax and fall back into God’s arms and speak the words of Julian of Norwich with confidence: “all shall be well.”

The Context

Here is the story. The Northern kingdom of Israel has fallen to the Assyrians. Assyria threatens to do the same to Judah. But God saves Judah from these oppressors as Isaiah 22 makes clear. Throughout Isaiah 1 we read how Judah has spurned God not recognizing His gracious care of them. They have looked to everything and one for help but God. Even though God helped them and saved them they again and again they gave Him no thanks. They showed no humility. So God is not pleased with them.

In spite of all God’s assistance to Israel Hezekiah is still afraid of Assyria. So in Isaiah 39 we read about Hezekiah trying to impress messengers from the King of Babylon by proudly showing him all his treasures. It is likely that Hezekiah is trying to align Israel with Babylon in order to stave off any future threat from Assyria. Isaiah moseys over and asks ‘who were those guys and what did they want?’ Hezekiah is feeling more than a little bit uncomfortable and tells him they were from Babylon and I showed them all of my treasures.

Isaiah tells Hezekiah ‘that was a bad move because your palace will be plundered and your descendants taken away to Babylon’. Hezekiah breathes a sigh of relief when he finds out that he will be spared (Isaiah 39:8). Babylon sees that Israel is rich and easy prey so a little later they march in and capture and plunder Israel.

The Problem

The rest of Isaiah 1 is written from the perspective that the Babylonian captivity is almost over. The questions in Israel’s mind are now: how does God think of us who have consistently rejected him, who have spurned His help and advice? Does He still like us? Do you think He would want to deliver us again? Then more cynically they ask ‘is God able to deliver us?’ After all the exile seems to show that He forsook His people and His covenant. So maybe God isn’t the omnipotent, Lord of history we thought He was.

Isaiah’s Response

In typical prophet-like style, Isaiah hits these questions head-on. No beating around the bush. There is a spark in the camp of Israel which he does not want to spread into a full-blown fire. So Isaiah’s first point which comes from Isaiah 40:12-26 is that God is Lord of the universe. God has no equals. Like a musician playing sharp staccato notes, Isaiah presents his case for the greatness of God.

The Greatness of God

He is big. ‘Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket, they are regarded as dust on the scales’. Imagine putting all of China, India and America, about 3 billion people, on a scale and concluding that they are dust.

He is unfathomable. ‘Who has understood the mind of the Lord…whom did the Lord consult to enlighten him? A multitude of Einsteins can’t match wits with God. God does not need a therapist or counsellor.

He can’t be put in a box. Isaiah asks, “To whom will you compare God? To what image will you compare him?” Creation and people may give us a faint glimmer of a reflection about God. But none of these remotely define or express His being.

He is all-powerful. “He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers.”

He is here for the long haul because he is eternal. Listen to the encouraging words of Isaiah: “do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is an everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow weary.” God has no limited battery life. He is permanently charged, ready and steadfast.

The Trustworthiness of God

Isaiah draws his second point from Isaiah 40:1-11: God can always be trusted to deliver us. Our faithlessness cannot nulify His faithfulness. Or as Paul said about 700 years later, “if we are faithless, he will remain faithful for he cannot disown himself.” Isaiah knows and believes God’s promises: “I will give strength to the weary and increase the power of the weak” and “even though youths grow tired and weary, and young people stumble and fall I will renew their strength and they will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not faint.” Wow! God is able to help. God is good. God is reliable. God is in it for the long haul. This is great news for Israel and equally great news for us today.

But wait a minute – is there nothing that He requires? Oh, yes. There is something He requires – something which lies deep within the soul. It is something which can easily get overgrown with pain and disappointment. It is something which can get buried under fear and unfulfilled desires. It is something which because of our own failures or circumstances can be snuffed out like a smouldering wick.

What is it that He requires of Israel and us? Hope. God is asking for Israel to hope again. Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. In this passage God wants to fan their hope into flame once more.

So God sends a message to Israel, words of solace ‘Comfort, comfort my people says your God’. These are the words of the covenant. God affirms Israel that they are still My people and I am still your God. The Father in heaven wants a new message to go out to His people stuck in Babylon. He wants his messengers to ‘speak tenderly to Jerusalem, to tell them that their hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins’.

God lets Israel know He has seen their pain. He knows their rebellion. He understands their undisciplined heart. He has observed their unfortunate prolonged circumstance. He remembers their unfaithfulness and disobedience. But mostly He recognizes their need to hope again. They are paralyzed and need hope. They need assurance that they are not a people without hope. They need assurance that they are not a people without a God. Their need can be satisfied if they remember who they are; they are Israel and they are God’s people. So God begins to stir the embers of their hope through an unknown voice crying out:

‘In the desert prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God’

What’s God saying through this voice? Basically start a road construction company. The image is of God on Mount Sinai in the desert saying prepare the way for me to come. Having travelled through the Sinai desert in an overcrowded taxi I can appreciate how windy the roads are. There are no direct routes. Of course Isaiah is referring to a metaphorical highway. How are they to build this highway for God to come to them?

They need to begin to soften their hearts toward God, to turn themselves toward their source of hope, love and faith. They need to start to dream dreams again. This open-minded open-handed attitude is just what God needs to help His people.

But this text also emphasizes the urgency with which God wants to get to Israel. God wants to get there quickly. God wants to get there directly. No detours for God. He wants a straight highway. He wants an interstate highway not a country lane. He wants to show his glory by delivering His people. God wants to move. He is unstoppable. No mountain, no valley can thwart God.

Yet before Israel can hope they need to know that God is able to deliver Israel from Babylon. In Isaiah 40:6 God tells Isaiah to cry out:

‘All people are like grass, and all their glory 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 flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever’.

Literally the text says in Isaiah 40:6 “their hesed (covenantal love) is like the flower of the field.” Basically the text says people lack the ‘stick-to-it-ness’ of God. People are not dependable. People are transitory and powerless. People are like grass which grows up quickly and then is eaten by animals or withers.

But what people does Isaiah have in mind? Both Israel and her oppressors. No one is a match for God. In fact a mere breath from the Lord will cause them to wither. God is assuring Israel one more time that He is infinitely greater than they are and infinitely more powerful than Babylon. If they trust Him they can overcome together their oppressors.

But it is so easy for us people to be intimidated. When we look at the outside people can seem to be a formidable opponent. But God is saying they are like grass that withers. Remember Saddam Hussein appeared so powerful but in no time he withered into the floor of a hut. The leaders of Romania and Yugoslavia discovered how impotent they were when the people stood united against their regimes. At the Nuremburg trial of the Nazis one man testifying against a former head of a concentration camp collapsed because he was surprised to see that this old man looked so normal and small and not at all like the monster he had created in his mind.

Yet, like Israel, we too can sit paralyzed wondering if God can change or overcome our past or present circumstances. In the face of our present and past we wonder if we can hope.

Some here struggle with acceptance before God. You soon discover that a lot of your identity is wrapped up in how well you perform at work or home, what grade you get for a module, how together you look among your peers, how much praise you get for your accomplishments. You know that this is crippling you. Can you and I hope for change?

Some here struggle because you know you are facing the prospect of being single.

Some are struggling because you living in a difficult marriage. What does hope look like for you?

Some here silently bear with a hidden sin or pain which you think makes you unacceptable to God and others around you.

Some live with unrealized hopes; the hope to hear your father say “I love you,” the hope to have a loved one say “I forgive you,” the hope for financial security, the hope for healing for yourself or others etc.

When we find ourselves in the same place as Israel we long for a voice, a passionate voice, a voice of compassion and hope, a voice with good news. Then from the distance we here a faint call which grows louder and louder. It comes from a high mountain. It is now loud and clear: “Lift up your voices, do not be afraid, here is your God. See the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and his arm rules for him. See his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.”

Such might. Such strength. But all this power can feel overwhelming and a bit scary. Will this God roll me over? Will I be crushed under His feet? Then the voice continues:

‘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’.

You breathe a sigh of relief. You have discovered God. He raises his arm in triumph but he lowers it in compassion. He is a shepherd, strong, determined but gentle.

For Israel this text found its fulfillment in the strangest of Messiahs: Cyrus, the King of Persia (Isaiah 45:1). God uses Cyrus to lead Israel back to the promised land. But for us this text ultimately finds its fulfillment in the person of Jesus. Yet he comes as a baby – hardly a powerful domineering figure. Small, helpless, perfect. But years later John cries out in the desert: “prepare the way of the Lord.” We see a different Jesus. No longer a child but a man, a shepherd. He enters the river and the Holy Spirit falls on Him with glorious splendour. The Father in heaven proudly proclaims to the universe, “You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased.”

This is your God. His name is Jesus. He wants you to hope. He wants to walk through valley of the shadow of death with you. He is good. And He is saying to you today regardless of your past or your present:

‘Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light’


Craig A. Smith is Lecturer in NT & Director of Postgraduate Research Studies at Trinity College in Bristol, England.

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