If you are familiar with Handel's Messiah, you will surely hear the music of that great oratorio going through your head as we read the verses of the fortieth chapter of Isaiah. Handel chose the first verses of this chapter for the opening chorus of Messiah.
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord's hand
double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:1-2 RSV)
In a musical overture, the themes of the piece to follow are all presented in brief form. That is what we have in these first eleven verses of Chapter 40, as Isaiah introduces the chapters to follow. It is noteworthy that his first emphasis is this wonderful word of forgiveness to Israel. The prophet seems to be carried forward in time to the occasion of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. He is told to announce to the disobedient nation that the basis for their forgiveness has already been accomplished. He is to speak to the heart of Jerusalem (that is what the word "tenderly" means), "and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, and that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins."
That last phrase, "double for all her sins," does not mean that God has punished the nation twice what their sins required. This is a reference to an Eastern custom. If a man owed a debt he could not pay, his creditor would write the amount of the debt on a paper and nail it to the front door of the man's house so that everyone passing would see that here was a man who had not paid his debts. But if someone paid the debt for him, then the creditor would double the paper over and nail it to the door as a testimony that the debt had been fully paid. This beautiful picture therefore is the announcement to Israel as a nation that in the death and resurrection of her Messiah her debt has been fully paid.
Today, too, Jew and Gentile alike are given the same wonderful announcement concerning our sins in Paul's great declaration in Second Corinthians 5, "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation," (2 Corinthians 5:19 RSV). That is the gospel -- the good news. There may be someone here this morning who feels burdened about the mistakes, the wrong things he has done, or the hurt he or she has caused. To you this wondrous word of forgiveness and reconciliation is directed. All that is needed is to confess your sinfulness and believe that God himself has borne your sins. "Your iniquity is pardoned, you have received from the Lord 'the doubling' for all your sins."
In these eleven verses, three voices are heard. We have heard the first, announcing forgiveness. The second voice is introduced in Verses 3-5:
A voice cries:
"In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken." (Isaiah 40:3-5 RSV)
We need not be in doubt as to whose voice this is, for the gospels record that this is what John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Lord, declared about himself. John announced that he was the fulfillment of this promise. The gospel of John records that a delegation from Jerusalem inquired of John, "Who are you?" (John 1:19 KJV). The account states, "He confessed, he did not deny, but confessed, I am not the Christ [the Messiah] (John 1:20). And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" (John 1:21a RSV). He said, "I am not," (John 1:21b). "Are you the prophet?" (John 1:21c RSV). And he answered, "No," (John 1:21d). They said to him then, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" (John 1:22 RSV). He said, "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,' as the prophet Isaiah said," (John 1:23 RSV). In Verse 6 the first voice, the voice of God, speaks again:
A voice says, "Cry!"
And I [the second voice] said, "What shall I cry?"
[The answer is] All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people is grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand for ever. (Isaiah 40:6-8 RSV)
These two passages define the ministry of John the Baptist, the forerunner of our Lord. He was to declare that when the Messiah came, his ministry would not only be one of reconciliation, but also one of reconstruction. He declared there would be a highway, built in the heart, for God to travel on. Four steps would be involved in the building process: "Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low, the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places plain." Construction engineers know that this is exactly how highways are built yet today.
In this beautiful symbolic language the prophet is saying that this is what God undertakes when he comes into our lives. When we have received his forgiveness, the next step is that he begins to change us, to reconstruct our lives. "Every valley is lifted up." In the low places of life, the discouraging times, times when you feel crushed and defeated, there will be comfort and encouragement from the Lord. Also, "Every mountain shall be brought down." All those places where our ego manifests itself, our proud boasts, our graspings for power, these must be cut down. We find ourselves humbled in many ways. Then, "The crooked places will be made straight." In the gospels we read that Zacchaeus paid back fourfold all the money he had stolen from people. Our deviousness will be corrected. We will steal no more; we will report our income properly.
Ah, but it is more than that, as we see in Verses 6-8. It is a word of reassurance as well. What is man? "All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field." All the great things we boast about will fade away and disappear. All man's knowledge and power will amount to nothing. "The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; ... but the word of our God will stand for ever." What a comfort that ought to be to us. Our natural strength will never accomplish what we want; human help will fail us. "But the word of our God will stand forever." What comes after the reconciliation, the reconstruction, and the reassurance? The voice continues.
"Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings,
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, fear not;
say to the cities of Judah,
'Behold your God!'" (Isaiah 40:9 RSV)
This is a word of witness, a proclamation that always follows, never precedes, the work of reconciliation, reconstruction and reassurance. We of the evangelical world have failed to understand this. We try to train people to go out and do witnessing. I have always regretted that. That is not the correct approach at all. Jesus did not say to his followers, "Behold I send you forth to do witnessing." He said, "Behold, I send you to be witnesses," (Matthew 10:16, Luke 10:3, Acts 1:8). A witness is one who talks about what happened to him. If nothing has happened to you, you do not have anything to say. If you cannot tell somebody of God's grace in your life, you cannot be a witness. All you can witness to is your knowledge of a certain set of verses, perhaps, and that is not true witnessing. Ah, but if something has happened, if you have been changed, if you sense the work of God in your heart, then "lift up your voice" and say to the all the people around, "Behold your God." What kind of a God? The voice goes on:
Behold, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed 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. (Isaiah 40:10-11 RSV)
What a tender, beautiful scene is portrayed in that last verse. But there are two portraits of God here. The God we proclaim is the God who is a Judge, with power and might to overcome all who resist him, all w ho attempt to deceive him or ignore him. But he is also a Shepherd. Those who cast themselves upon him he will nourish with tender care, even the feeblest among them, "and gently lead those that are with young." These, beautiful words remind us of Jesus' own words in John 10, where he says of himself, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep," (John 10:11 RSV).
Verse 11 brings to mind the words of Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul." The rest of the chapter gathers around a theme that is given to us twice, in Verses 18 and 25:
To whom then will you liken God,
or what likeness compare with him? [Who is like God?] (Isaiah 40:18 RSV)
And again in Verse 25:
To whom then will you compare me,
that I should be like him? says the Holy One. (Isaiah 40:25 RSV)
What other god is there that you can trust, and how does the true God compare to him? This section has some of the most majestic and superb language about God found in Scripture. Listen to these words in Verse 12:
Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure
and weighed the mountains in scales
and the hills in a balance? (Isaiah 40:12 RSV)
Here God himself is asking man, "Can you do what I do? Can you hold the waters of earth in the hollow of your hand?" I stood on the beach at San Diego yesterday, a gorgeous day throughout all of California, watching the great combers coming in from the Pacific. As I watched those great billows crashing on the sand I thought of the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, extending thousands upon thousands of miles to the west. These words came to my mind, "Who has measured the waters and held them in the hollow of his hand?" God himself in majesty and greatness controls all the forces of earth. Verses 13 and 14 speak of God's incredible wisdom.
Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord,
or as his counselor has instructed him?
Whom did he consult for his enlightenment,
and who taught him the path of justice,
and taught him knowledge,
and showed him the way of understanding? (Isaiah 40:13-14 RSV)
Who could do that? Well, many attempt to. I confess there have been times when I have been confronted with a difficult problem which I analyzed and thought I had solved. Then I have come to God and told him step by step what he could do to work out the problem -- only to find, to my utter astonishment, that he completely ignored my approach and did nothing about it. I have become a little irritated over this. I have said to him, "Lord, even I can see how to work this out. Surely you ought to be able to understand." But as the problem remained, and a whole new situation came to light, I realized that God saw far more than I could see, that he knew of obstacles I had no knowledge of, complexities that touched the lives of hundreds of people. He was working out purposes that would go on not only for the moment, but on and on into one generation after another; that his solution ultimately was the best one. I had to say, as the Apostle Paul says in Romans 11, "O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!" (Romans 11:33 RSV). In Verses 15 to 17, God compares himself with the proud nations of earth.
Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
and are accounted as the dust on the scales;
behold, he takes up the isles like fine dust.
[In Isaiah, "the isles" are a reference to the continents, the great land masses, washed by the sea.]
Lebanon [the forests of Lebanon] would not suffice for fuel,
nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering.
All the nations are as nothing before him,
they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness. (Isaiah 40:15-17 RSV)
How feeble seem the boasts of men, the leaders of the nations, with their claims to glory and might and power, when compared with the greatness, the majesty and the strength of God himself. They are nothing, God says, absolutely nothing. God concludes this section with a word to those who feel forgotten and neglected. Verse 27:
Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
"My way is hid from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God?" (Isaiah 40:27 RSV)
Have you ever felt that God does not notice you, that he has no concern about your affairs? Have you felt neglected, forgotten, and thought that God does not care about you? We all feel this way at times. Here is God's answer to this.
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;
[Watch the Super Bowl today and you will see it happen.]
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. (Isaiah 40:28-31 RSV)
How many thousands through the centuries have taken those promises literally and found that to "wait upon the Lord" does this very thing. It all hinges on that one word, wait. Wait! The hardest word to learn in the language for some, especially young people. Wait. Let God work. The Hebrew word has a note of expectation about it: expect God to work, wait in expectation that God will move. It takes time, you cannot have it overnight, but they that wait upon the Lord shall find their own strength renewed. They shall find their spirit mounting up like the eagle in its flight, their souls able to run the gamut of emotions. They shall never be weary. And they shall walk (in body) and not faint.
Chapter 41 picks up these themes (as do all these subsequent chapters), and repeats them again and again. The chapter deals with Israel's trust in the idols of Babylon. Some 100 years after Isaiah uttered this prophecy, Israel was taken captive and carried off to Babylon. There, amidst the idolatries and deceitfulness of Babylon, the people were tempted to worship the false gods of that city. Here, God, through the prophet, rebukes them but promises also to deliver them. He speaks of one from the East whom he is going to raise up to accomplish this.
Who stirred up one from the east
whom victory meets at every step? (Isaiah 41:2a RSV)
In later chapters this one will be identified as Cyrus the Mede, who was God's instrument for the deliverance of his people from the idolatry of Babylon. In Verses 8-9 God describes their unbelief in the midst of this:
But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
and called from its farthest corners,
saying to you, "You are my servant,
I have chosen you and not cast you off"; (Isaiah 41:8-9 RSV)
Here is a remarkable promise to Israel, that even though they turn their backs on God, even though they wander off in unbelief and fall into the trap of worshipping the idols around them, nevertheless God will not cast them off. The Apostle Paul picks up that argument in Romans 9, 10 and 11, and asks the question, "Has God rejected his people?" (Romans 11:1 RSV). His answer is, "Absolutely not." God has a future for Israel, That is why the nation exists today still in unbelief. But God promises to deliver them some day.
All of this has its counterpart in our own lives. Even though we turn our backs on God, even though we wander off in rebellion and hurtful, hateful submission to the idols that men follow today, God does not abandon us. He works in our lives to bring us back. In a remarkable passage, Verses 21-24 of Chapter 41, God challenges these idols of men to prove their word.
Set forth your case, says the Lord;
bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob.
Let them bring them, and tell us
what is to happen.
Tell us the former things, what they are,
that we may consider them,
that we may know their outcome; (Isaiah 41:21-22a RSV)
God is challenging the idols. "Go back over history and tell us what its meaning is. Tell us how things came into the present from out of the past, if you are as smart as you say."
...or declare to us the things to come [predict the future].
Tell us what is to come hereafter,
that we may know that you are gods;
do good, or do harm [Do something!],
that we may be dismayed and terrified. (Isaiah 41:22b-23 RSV)
A word of contempt follows:
Behold, you are nothing,
and your work is naught;
an abomination is he who chooses you. (Isaiah 41:24 RSV)
What a withering, sarcastic description of the idols in which men trust. Do we have idols today? At our staff meeting last week, Rich Carlson, our college pastor, reported that he finds on all the campuses that students are living in fear. They are afraid to get a job, afraid to get out into the modern world, afraid of failure. They live in constant fear that they are not going to measure up, be successful, or somehow achieve all they want out of life. Even Christian students are not trusting the Lord, he told us. They do not see him in charge of life. In their eyes "the system," the powers that be, the company, their own sex drive, the urge to climb the corporate ladder; these are in charge of men's affairs.
These are the gods that the world constantly worships, the gods of every generation -- ambition, fame, wealth, pleasure, comfort. But what do they offer really? Can they explain the past? Can they predict the future? A couple of days ago I addressed people some of whom are among the foremost men of industry and science. I found that among them and their contemporaries many have arrived at the place where they have everything they have always wanted but they do not want anything they have. They feel life is empty and meaningless. This is what idols do to those who worship them. We need to read these closing words of Chapter 41, where God says:
But when I look there is no one;
among these there is no counselor
who, when I ask, gives an answer.
Behold, they are all a delusion;
their works are nothing;
their molten images are empty wind. (Isaiah 41:28-29 RSV)
That is all the idols of man can deliver! Chapter 42 begins the unveiling of the suffering Servant of Jehovah. Increasingly he will come to the forefront throughout this last section, until at last, in Chapter 53, we find the sun of Messianic revelation at its meridian.
Behold, my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights,
I have put my Spirit upon him,
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not fail or be discouraged till
he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law. (Isaiah42:1-4 RSV)
Jewish commentators claim that this Servant is a reference to the nation Israel. They base their view upon the passage we just read in Chapter 41, Verse 9, "You whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, 'You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off.'" Clearly that refers to Israel. The Jewish commentators reject the claims of Christians that these verses in Chapter 42 refer to Jesus, claiming that it is only the nation that is the servant of Jehovah.
How do we respond to that? I do not think we can ever understand this whole section of Isaiah until we realize the close connection of the nation of Israel with its Messiah. God sees them as one. In fact, "The servant of Jehovah" is always Israel; we must admit that. But sometimes that servant is viewed as the whole unbelieving mass of the nation, as is the case in the land of Israel right now. The new nation of Israel is not a believing nation. It is made up largely of scoffers and atheists, skeptics who have little time for even their own Scriptures.
The mass of the nation is unbelieving now. Oftentimes it is portrayed this way in the prophets, as we find in Verse 19 of Chapter 42:
Who is blind but my servant,
or deaf as my messenger whom I send?
Who is blind as my dedicated one,
or blind as the servant of the Lord? (Isaiah 42:19 RSV)
These references do envision the whole disobedient nation in its unbelief. There are other verses that view the nation as the believing remnant, the tiny body of Jews who still truly believe their Old Testament Scriptures, who worship the Lord with their whole heart. They, too, are called "the servant of Jehovah." And sometimes, as in this case the phrase is concentrated in the one person of the Messiah, who is the essence of Israel. That is why Jesus said, "Salvation is of the Jews." He would bring salvation to the world, but he was a Jew. He is seen as the very essence of the nation itself. We have this in these first four verses of chapter 42.
Behold, my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights; (Isaiah 42:1a RSV)
Here God gives the characteristics of the servant. He will be Spirit-filled:
I have put my Spirit upon him, (Isaiah 42:1b RSV)
This happened to Jesus at his baptism, when the Spirit descended upon him like a dove. He will be unassuming and obscure.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street; (Isaiah 42:2 RSV)
Jesus did not go about loudly proclaiming himself, trying to gain a following. He conducted himself in an unassuming manner, teaching the truth, which attracted great numbers of people to him. He would be patient and gentle:
...a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; (Isaiah 42:3a RSV)
Wherever there is evidence of faith, he will encourage it. Wherever there is a little strength, he will support it. He will never turn away those with but little faith.
...he will faithfully bring forth justice. (Isaiah 42:3b RSV)
Then finally, he will be persistent, and ultimately successful.
He will not fail or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law. (Isaiah 42:4 RSV)
All this clearly applies to our Lord. The chapter goes on to describe God's controversy with Israel in its unbelief. And this present section concludes in the opening words of Chapter 43 with a promise of ultimate redemption.
But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
"Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Isaiah 43:1-3a RSV)
This is the explanation of why the nation of the Jews, subjected to the most terrible tortures known to man, including the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, have survived and still remain a nation on the earth. "When you pass through the fire, you will not be consumed."
These verses, of course, apply to our hearts in a spiritual way. How many thousands have rested upon this promise, that God would sustain them through times of stress. I like to call this "God's program for stress management." What a marvelous promise: "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, when through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you."
Then God speaks even more intimately,
Because you are precious in my eyes,
and honored, and I love you,
I give men in return for you,
peoples in exchange for your life.
Fear not, for I am with you; (Isaiah 43:4-5a RSV)
This is God's repeated promise. It is the answer to all our fears. Then comes the promise of ultimate gathering:
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, Give up,
and to the south, Do not withhold;
bring my sons from afar
and my daughters from the end of the earth,
every one who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made. (Isaiah 43:5b-7 RSV)
What superb language! How majestically it describes the power of God and his intention to carry out his word in human history!
Many ask if the present return of Jews from the nations to the land of Israel is the fulfillment of these words. The answer is clearly, "No." They have come back in unbelief they have not been brought back by the hand of God. Jesus himself said that when he returns, all those on the earth "...will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other," (Matthew 24:30-31). This is the promise that is described here. I close with but one more reference, in Verses 10-11:
"You are my witnesses," says the Lord,
"and my servant whom I have chosen,
that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am He. (Isaiah 43:10a RSV)
That is God's purpose for calling anyone to himself: that you may know him, that you may understand him, and believe him. The reason for this is that he is absolutely unique and does what no other can do.
Before me no god was formed,
nor shall there be any after me.
I, I am the Lord,
and besides me there is no savior. (Isaiah 43:10b-11 RSV)
There is no savior besides the Lord. He, alone, has power to deliver men from their sins. This brings to mind those wonderful words of the angels to the shepherds at Bethlehem, "Behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy which shall be to all people, for there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior," (Luke 2:10-11a). This verse in Isaiah says there is no Savior besides the Lord: "I am the Lord and besides me there is no savior." But the angels declare, "there is born to you this day ... a Savior, who is Christ the Lord," ( Luke 2:11). Clearly, Jehovah is Jesus, and Jesus is Jehovah.
None other Lamb, none other Name,
None other hope in land, or earth, or sea.
None other hiding place from guilt and shame,
None, but in Thee.