FROM: Stephen Nichols May 23, 2015
Isaiah 40 may very well be one of the most beautiful chapters of the Bible. From the first words—“Comfort, comfort my people”—to the last words of mounting up with wings like an eagle, this chapter is sheer poetry. If I were British, I would simply say, “Brilliant.”
Isaiah chapter 40 begins the “Book of Comfort,” the section of the book that runs from chapter 40 on through to the end at chapter 66. This section looks past the judgments, past Israel’s exile. It looks to the time when Israel will be restored. That restoration will come in miniature, as it were, under Cyrus. Cyrus is prophesied of a full century before he even comes on the scene of human history. That restoration will come again when Christ comes the first time. And it will come again when Christ returns and leads us into the new heavens and the new earth.
But to a nation in exile, under the control of mighty Babylon and then Persia, such a vision of restoration would be nothing more than a wish-dream. They would not see the prospect of God’s promise. They would only see the barriers and the impediments. A vast dessert separated Israel in exile from her homeland. And who would imagine that a tyrant like Cyrus would issue a decree to let Israel go?
So we have Israel in exile being told they will be restored.
I suspect in the honest moments this promise of deliverance would be met with doubt. “Let’s be realistic about our situation. Can’t you see reality?” they might be tempted to say. “Why get our hopes up when they almost certainly will only be dashed.”
So we see something rather remarkable in Isaiah 40. After the promise of deliverance in 40:1-11, we see a series of demonstrations of God’s power. God demonstrates His power over creation and the mighty forces of nature. He measures out the seas, He weighs mountains in a scale, and He knows the vast multitude of stars by name.
We also see God’s power over the false gods and idols. With sarcasm, the prophet declares that one of lesser means has to nail down his poorly constructed idol so it does not totter and fall over.
And God demonstrates His power over the nations. These mighty superpowers, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Medo-Persia all tower over Israel. Israel was a tiny sliver of land compared to these mighty nations. Yet, God counts them a drop in the bucket. God is more powerful than Babylon. God controls Cyrus and his formidable armies.
So one might say this is all well and good. God is omnipotent. We can declare that in that abstract. What about my situation? Does God notice that I need Him? This is in fact the exact question Isaiah raises in 40:27: “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, my way is hidden form the lord, and my right is disregarded by my God?”
So Isaiah draws this majestic chapter to a close by offering one last demonstration of God’s power. Not only is God’s power demonstrated over creation, the false gods, and the nations, it is also demonstrated in the lives of His people. God delights to demonstrate His power in the lives of His people.
Let’s take the symbol of human strength and vigor. Young men. But, they, too, have their limits. They will eventually faint. The good news of Isaiah is that God gives power to the faint.
Because God delights to demonstrate His power in our lives we can have proper confidence in God. We can have confidence that God is powerful enough to come good on His promises. He does not grow weary. He does not faint. He is able.
No obstacle, however formidable, will ever prevail against Him.
We must see this in our day. The nations rage. The false gods and idols of our age present themselves. We know all too well our own limitations and weaknesses. Our temptation may be to place our confidence in the wrong place. We may rather foolishly put our confidence in ourselves. We might look to the state, to politics as the solution. That temptation has always seemed to be alluring to American Christians in particular. In the face of such temptations, we must put our confidence in God.
And we also must trust that He will fulfill His promises. If God has declared that righteousness will someday prevail, then righteousness will someday prevail. If God promises that His Kingdom will not be thwarted, then His kingdom will not be thwarted. And if God promises to His church that the gates of hell should not prevail, then the gates of hell shall not prevail.
The temptation may very well come for us to cave on our convictions, to lack courage. As we face such times may return to Isaiah 40. May we see its beauty and its poetry. May we see the full force of its truthfulness for us today.
Dr. Stephen J. Nichols is president of Reformation Bible College, chief academic officer for Ligonier Ministries, and teaches on the podcast 5 Minutes in Church History.