For the past year, I’ve been working my way through Isaiah–one chapter each week. A few weeks back, I spent an encouraging week in Isaiah 40. In fact, it was so encouraging that I stretched it out for two weeks! Here’s a summary of the chapter along with some lessons I took from this amazing section of God’s Word.
Beginning in chapter 40, the focus and feel of the book of Isaiah changes. The book shifts from prose to poetry. The tone changes, as signaled by the opening line in chapter 40: “Comfort, comfort my people says your God” (40:1). The message to Israel, which is still corrective at times, brims with hope. The vision of God is stunning and sweeping. The vision of the future is glorious.
While later chapters will address events in Israel’s future, including their return from exiles, nothing in chapter 40 indicates a distant-future orientation. Instead of calling Israel to look forward into the future, chapter 40 calls them to look upward at their incomparable God. In fact, Isaiah does more. He calls Judah (and all of God’s people) to “wait for the Lord” (31). The idea of waiting merges and overlaps with the concepts of trust and hope. This speaks of a confident, settled, patient expectation that God, in His time and way, will showcase His glory and shepherd His people. So, waiting for the Lord is not just passing time; it’s allowing the truth of God’s incomparable greatness to pass before our eyes (“Lift up your eyes on high and see”) so that it stabilizes our souls.
The chapter opens with good news: God is coming to comfort His feeble, chastened, vulnerable people. Jerusalem has indeed been chastened by God’s “double” judgment” (2). But that is now past. God comes close to comfort (1) and carry them (11). The Lord is pictured as coming through the wilderness in a way that reveals His glory to all people (3-5). Here is a foreshadowing of God’s glory seen in the return of the exiles from Babylon and the greater glory of the coming of the Servant of the Lord–Jesus Christ (with John the Baptist as “the voice”—John 1:23).
Throughout this chapter, God’s incomparable greatness is set is contrast with other insufficient sources of power and trust: all people are like grass that fades (6-8); the earth itself—including the oceans and mountains—is miniature and tiny (12, 26); the nations are like “a drop from a bucket” (15,17); the idols are pitiful, tottering chunks of wood and metal (19-20); the princes and rulers are like short-lived plants that God blows away like stubble (23-24); the stars are called by name and kept in place by His word (26). No one compares with God: “To whom them will you compare me that I should be like him? says the Holy One” (25).
Behold Your God
The Lord’s greatness is without rival or comparison. In this one chapter, the powerful, imposing and massive features of the world are placed next to God for comparison. The results? There is literally no comparison; the disparity between God and anything we might consider impressive is laughable. Mountains are miniature, oceans fit in his hand, rulers are stubble, idols are embarrassing. God alone is great.
The Lord carries out justice in a just way. The people of Israel are speaking ill of God’s dealings with them. They say, “my right is disregarded by my God” (27). Isaiah 40 forcefully refutes that conclusion. God has dealt justly with His people in allowing them to experience the full consequences of their sins (“received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins”—1). No one needs to teach the Lord the “path of justice” (15). He needs no ethics consultant (15). He is the Holy One who does what it right and true because of who He is.
The Lord is fully aware of His people’s situation. Israel has given way to thinking God must have lost track of them. Isaiah makes it clear how absurd it is to think the God who knows the stars by name and who keeps them in their place has somehow lost track of His people. As Isaiah 40:28 reminds us: “His understanding is unsearchable.”
The Lord is immeasurably great but still intimately concerned for His people. The same God who holds the waters in the hollow of His hand (12), holds his vulnerable sheep in His harms, next to His heart (11). Though He towers above the heavens and earth, He is touched by the needs and cries of His people. He is both transcendent and immanent.
Here Am I
I must keep a vision of God’s greatness in view to see life in proper perspective. Israel lost sight of God’s majestic greatness and so concluded that He was unaware or did not care (27). Isaiah 40 helps reorient our vision so that we see God towering above all the challenges we may face.
I am grass and a grasshopper, but also a sheep cared for by the Shepherd. Isaiah 40 reminds us of humbling truth: we are grass that withers and fades (6-8) and are also like grasshoppers before the One who sits above the circle of the earth (22). Still, Isaiah 40 reminds me that, as one who belongs to the Mighty God, I am one of the sheep He cares for and carries (11).
I must wait on the Lord for renewed strength. This COVID season has taken a toll on all of us. We’ve grown weary. As Isaiah says, even “young men” become exhausted–let alone those of us who aren’t so young any more. How important and encouraging to know the Lord will renew our strength as we wait (trust, hope) for Him. Lord, help me to confidently wait on you and continually rely on your strength.
Note: The photo for this post is a shot of Mt. Moran, a mountain in Grand Teton National Park. When Linda and I visited this area in 2013, I spent hours sitting and looking up at this mountain. Its grandeur prompted me to praise the God who “weighs the mountains in scales” (Isaiah 40:12).