Isaiah 40:1-14, 27-31.

Comfort in Times of Trouble

American Journal of Biblical Theology     Vol. 7 Issue 8.     April 23 2006
Copyright © 2006, J.W. Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV

Troubles.  There is probably no person who has ever lived who has not experienced times of significant difficulty and stress that come from an unlimited array of events and circumstances.  One only needs to observe the front-page headlines of any newspaper to observe the more sensational events:  people killed in bombings, deaths on our roadways, and senseless killings, each brining a wave of grief and mourning to the families of those who lost their lives.  We learn of people who are suffering in destitution and poverty, suffering starvation and pestilence at the hands of nations whose leaders despise their own people.  People suffer the effects of sickness and disease that are often debilitating, crushing the spirit of the one affected and bringing great stress to their loved ones.  The mortality of man dictates that all will die, and we all hope that our own deaths will come without suffering.  Now that I have reached that age where restaurants offer me discounts, I also find that much of the conversation that surrounds me involves health issues, as we deal with those concerns that surround the autumn of life.  Much of our suffering comes from the consequences of our own ungodly choices and those of others. 

How do people contend with such conflict?  When all seems hopeless, where is a source of hope to be found?   

Isaiah 40:1-2.

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. 2Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORDíS hand double for all her sins.

The plight of ancient Judah engages many, if not all, of the stressors that we experience today.  Historically, the most significant of these were the consequences of ungodly choices.  In the first 39 chapters of his prophesy, Isaiah exposes the sin of Israel and Judah as each nation has turned its back on God, rejecting the covenant that the nation made with God following their emancipation from Egypt: a covenant to honor and obey God.  In return for their obedience, God promised to protect them and keep them in the land that He would give them.  The consequence of their choice was to lose their land, and hence their nation and their national identity when they exchanged God's protection for that of their warring neighbors.  Those first 39 chapters describe the apostasy of the nations and the destruction that Israel and Judah will experience at the hands of Assyria and Babylon respectively.  Isaiah's accuracy in his descriptions of the specific events that would transpire has led many to argue that the book is a historical record rather than a prophesy. 

When we come to the 40th chapter of Isaiah, he has completed his disclosure of Israel and Judah's sin and its consequence.  He now turns to a message that reaches beyond the events and their consequences as he addresses the core need of those who are immersed in the stress of their circumstances:  hope. 

Judah has witnessed the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel, yet has failed to learn from the event.  They tended to think that they were invincible because of the presence of the Glory of God in the Jerusalem temple.  To defeat Judah was to defeat God, and such a defeat would never happen.  They had recently witnessed the failure of the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, in his attempt to besiege Jerusalem under the reign of the godly king, Hezekiah.  However, the reign of godly kings would end and Judah, like Israel, would be destroyed.  However, this destruction under Babylon's king Nebuchadnezzar would be different.  Prior to its destruction, Nebuchadnezzar would take into captivity the faithful remnant of Jews, and would keep them together rather than disperse them as was done with the people of Israel by Assyria.  After 30 years in captivity, Cyrus, the king of the combined Median and Persian empire would overwhelm Babylon, and take the region for his own.  After another 40 years, Cyrus would allow the return of the Jews to Judah under the leadership of his Hebrew Cupbearer, Nehemiah.  Not only would Cyrus allow the return, but he also promised their protection as they traveled, and he provided much of the resource needed to rebuild the city.  Nebuchadnezzar would not destroy Judah for yet another 100 years from the time that Isaiah writes, so we will see his prophesy to be quite amazing.

The message we find in Isaiah's 40th chapter is one of comfort.  The command is given here that the people of Judah are to be comforted in their time of stress.  Isaiah has already outlined the reason why Judah is suffering, and why Judah will be destroyed.  However, Isaiah also assured the people that, true to God's promise at Mt. Sinai, the remnant would be preserved and protected.  Though the warfare is still to come, it will come to an end.  That end will also be the end of the consequence of their apostasy.  We should probably note that though God allowed the destruction of Judah by Babylon, that destruction still resulted as a direct consequence of the decision of the Judean kings to place their trust in the untrustworthy neighboring nations instead of the Lord.  It was those neighboring nations that destroyed them, and the influence of those nations would not last long.  The consequence of their sin was profound, and Isaiah describes it as "double" that which the Lord would will.  However, the punishment would be completed, and pardon would be received by those who trust God.  Though Judah would suffer the consequence of their apostasy, they would not be abandoned by God, the time of suffering will come to an end, and they will find pardon. 

Isaiah 40:3-5.

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: 5And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.

The Jews had just witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple.  The most significant loss was in the removal of the Glory of God from the temple, something that the Jews never believed could happen.  A return to Jerusalem could not be complete, at least in their own understanding, without the return of the LORD.  Isaiah uses a well-understood ancient metaphor as he describes the return of the Lord to Jerusalem.  It was a common practice for ancient kings to parade their gods into their new, conquered, lands.  Though Cyrus was not yet in the historical picture, he was a master at this.  The parade of their gods would be preceded by a preparation of the road where the king would pass.  This could include renovation, construction, and any manner of preparation that would make the road passable.  Borrowing from that cultural practice, Isaiah illustrates the return of the LORD to Jerusalem in a way they can understand.  Not only will the return take place, it will come in a manner quite different than what Israel had experienced the first time.  Though God had brought Israel on a quite direct pathway to the promised land from their bondage to the Egyptian pharaohs, their fearful refusal to enter resulted in another 40 years of wandering and warfare.  The pathway of the LORD from Egypt to Canaan was anything but straight.  This time the preparation would be so complete that even the mountains and valleys would be leveled to make the path straight.  The return of the LORD would not be impeded by obstacles in the pathway, whether they be understood as wandering, warfare, or any other circumstances of resistance. 

The prophesy was fulfilled when the Persian king Cyrus decreed the safe return of the Jews to Jerusalem.  Whether their return was taken directly across the expanse of desert between Nineveh and Jerusalem or whether they traveled over the more passable northern route is unknown.  However, the directness of the path is a more of a metaphor of a path that is traveled without resistance than it is a reference to a compass. 

John the Baptist also drew from this metaphor as He announced the coming of the promised Messiah (John 1:23.) to Judah, claiming his own as the voice in the wilderness, and referring to Jesus as the LORD who is coming.  John understood that his own ministry was to prepare the way for the LORD.  Consequently, this message of Isaiah has a broad application as it refers to both the return of the LORD to Jerusalem in the emancipation of Judah from Persian captivity, as well as the emancipation of the faithful from the captivity of sin.  One can easily see how the experience of the Jews in Assyria/Persia and their return to Jerusalem is a type of the separation from God that all people find as a consequence of their own sin and the emancipating power of Jesus' death on the cross that returns all of the faithful to God.

The first return would be a note in the historical record, described in the biblical accounts of Ezra and Nehemiah.  The second return would change the historical context forever.   All people of the earth would know of the return of the LORD, though most will still reject Him.  Even calendar years throughout the world are based upon the return of the LORD in the birth of the Messiah.  (Note that there is a drive by the liberal elite to rename B.C. and A.D. to BCE and CE, one that will probably be successful, in an attempt to further diminish the evidence of the coming of the Messiah.  "Before Christ" and "Anno Domini", the "year of our LORD", will be replaced with "Before Common Era, and Common Era," simply another euphemism since the calendar will still rotate around the coming of the LORD.  Indeed, all flesh will still "see it together."

Of course, Jesus promised that the end of this age would come with His return, a time when all flesh will see Him, a time when every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus is LORD. 

Isaiah 40:6-8.

The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: 7The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass. 8The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.

Sometimes we put a great deal of stock in our own importance, or in the importance of the events of our day.  All of the most important people, events and circumstances of this world are temporal, and their influence will pass.  The Assyrian nation that destroyed Israel would soon diminish following Sennecherib's defeat at Jerusalem.  Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon would soon fall to the Medo-Persians under Cyrus.  The face of world circumstance is ever changing, and nothing ever lasts forever.  However, there is one constant that is reliable:  the Word of God stands forever.  When we put our trust in things of this world, we place it on things that do not last.  When we submit ourselves to the authorities of this world, we do so with authorities that will not last.  This was a clear message to Israel and Judah who submitted themselves to worldly authorities rather than to God.  God's promise of protection and preservation is offered to everyone who places their faith and trust in Him, and unlike every other influence of this world, God's promise will never change.  God is eternal, and separate from the age of this creation, and in His eternity there is consequently no context for change.  God will be standing at the end of this age exactly as He is now.  His word will not change, and His word contains the whole of who He is, including His promises.  We can be comforted to know that, regardless of how bad we think the circumstances of this world are, they will not last forever, and God will still be there.

It may be interesting to note that the "grass withers and the flowers fade because the Spirit of the Lord breathes upon it."  The devolution of all that is in this world is in God's perfect plan.  God does not plan that people would live forever, so the degradation of human health in latter years is in God's plan.  However God's promise remains, that those who have placed their trust in Him will not be ultimately disappointed, but will find an eternal relationship with Him, a relationship that will stand with Him forever.

Isaiah 40:9-11.

O Zion, that bringest good tidings, get thee up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, that bringest good tidings, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God! 10Behold, the Lord GOD will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him: behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him. 11He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.

Not only do we give great importance to the circumstances of our day, we also give them the power to discourage us.  When we immerse ourselves in the satiating and gratifying world of self-pity, we can easily blind ourselves to the big picture: God is still on the throne, and His ultimate purposes will not be dissuaded by my petty complaints.  The fact that God is always faithful to His promise is great news.   Isaiah points out that this is news that is worthy of shouting from the mountaintops.  Why do we need to shout, to "lift up thy voice with strength"?  Sometimes it is hard to get our attention when our focus has been turned away from God's grace. 

We might see a parallel in the Glory of God that appeared as a pillar of fire to the Israelites as they left Egypt.  The sight of the pillar of cloud in the day, and the fire at night was a wonder to behold.  When the shepherds witnessed the Glory of God at the annunciation they were struck with great wonder and fear.  Likewise the Roman guards were struck with awe and fear when they witnessed the Glory of God at the tomb on Easter morning.  That same pillar of fire stood over the tent of meeting and the Jerusalem temple for 1200 years.  By the time that Judah was attacked by Babylon, the people did not even give notice it any longer. 

When we immerse ourselves in the issues of our own little world, it is easy to ignore the blessing that God has provided.  Isaiah points out several of the comforting truths about God's continual presence in our lives:

1.) "God will come with a strong hand."  He is greater than anything that this world has to offer.  God is greater than the greatest of my worries.  God is greater then the greatest of my sins.  There is nothing in this world that can come between God and those he loves (Rom 8:38-39).

2.) "His arm shall rule ..."  As much as we give authority to the powers and principalities of this world, it is still God who is in control.

3.) "His reward is with Him."  Despite all that the world can do to vex the life of the faithful, their reward is not with this world, but with an unchanging, faithful, and loving God. 

4.)  "And His work ..."  God has a plan and purpose that transcends my circumstance.   I may think that the consequences of a recently diagnosed medical condition are dramatic and debilitating, yet those circumstances do not overpower me when I understand that God has a plan that supersedes those circumstances.  I will find the doors of opportunity opened when it is His plan I follow, and not my own.

5.)  "He shall feed ..."  Much of the stress and chaos that is experienced in the life of many people is related to their diligence towards self-sufficiency.  People work to make more money and accumulate more property with the assumption that there will be some point in time when that accumulation will bring security.  However, that someday never comes.  Our security is found in the LORD who has promised to take care of our needs.  There is no need to fear that one's needs will not be met when one is fully faithful to the Lord.  One who is faithful will not be slothful, so sufficient work and opportunity for work will be provided.  If one cannot work, God provides. 

6.) "He shall gather ..."  God's ultimate plan is to bring to Himself all of those who place their faith in Him.  This is a promise that is sure.  It is a promised that is based upon God's unchangeable character.   

7.) "and He shall lead..."  We wander from God's plan when we, like the ancient Israelites, turn our back on God and follow the things of this world.  We sometimes find the immediate sensual rewards of this world to be more attractive than an assurance of the future.  We then make choices that are independent of God's plan and purpose for our lives and we find ourselves in a mess.  Sometimes we will get to the point of asking where God is, or even blaming God for the mess we are in.  God's promise is simple:  He will lead those who will follow Him.  We can turn from our bent for self-will and surrender to His will.  When we do so, He promises to lead us.

Isaiah 40:12.

Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance?

Do we fail to appreciate the immensity of an infinite God?  When we place our own limits on our understanding of God, we also limit what we think He can do in our lives.  Isaiah illustrates the immensity of God in what he understands as the unfathomable dimensions of God's creation.  With today's scientific scrutiny we can measure the amount of material in the earth, and we can measure the weight of the mountains.  However, even science itself was not a field of study until A.D. 1400 to A.D. 1500.  During the time of the writing of the scriptures, there simply was no science to draw from in order to answer Isaiah's questions.  The ancients held in awe the immensity of the earth, while many today marvel at how small the world is.  However, it is still difficult to grasp the immensity of this expanding universe as we gaze across millions of light years of space at far-away galaxies.  Yet, God holds all of this creation in His own hand for His own pleasure.  One cannot measure God by any scale that can be physically represented.  When we truly begin to grasp how great God is, we can only begin to understand how God is sufficient to fulfill all of his promises to us. 

Isaiah 40:13-14.

Who hath directed the Spirit of the LORD, or being his counsellor hath taught him? 14With whom took he counsel, and who instructed him, and taught him in the path of judgment, and taught him knowledge, and showed to him the way of understanding?

Just as God cannot be measured by any physical means, His wisdom cannot be measured by any wisdom of man.  Do we think we know better than God when we make choices that are based upon our own desires when we clearly know that they are not in God's will?  When we leave God out of our decision making, we are demonstrating that we consider our own wisdom greater than that of God.  Isaiah asks the question, "what person has ever given counsel to God?  Who taught to God His knowledge?"  We might sometimes think that we can instruct God on the appropriate choices in our own lives, but such a position only demonstrates the depth of our own foolishness.  Yet, it is in that foolishness that we often get ourselves into stressful or hurtful circumstances.  However, the wisdom and understanding of God is still and always will be available to those who will trust in Him. 

Isaiah 40:27-28.

Why sayest thou, O Jacob, and speakest, O Israel, My way is hid from the LORD, and my judgment is passed over from my God? 28Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? there is no searching of his understanding.

There are many who act as though they think that God is unaware and uninterested in the matters concerning their lives.  Some teach that God is simply too "busy" to have time for us, and the direct their prayers to Mary or to a subset of those faithful Christians who have already gone to be with the Lord, a subset who may have a special status with the Lord because of their proven faithfulness.  Such an argument may make sense from a standpoint of human logic, but it denies the true nature of God.  While we may think that God is too busy for us, or that our way is hidden from us while He looks elsewhere, we also agree that God is omniscient:  He knows all.  If God is omniscient, there is simply nothing that escapes His knowledge.  There is no limit to God's understanding.  Jesus taught His disciples to pray to the Father, and that same opportunity is offered to every disciple of Christ, to every believer.  We cannot hide from God, and we cannot offer prayers that He cannot hear.  To think we can do so is to deny His omniscience and place human limitations on Him. 

Consequently, we can always be assured that, whatever the circumstances are in our lives, God always knows and God always cares.  We also argue that God is omnipotent: that His power is limitless.  Unlike we who grow weary at the end of the day, God never sleeps, nor has need of sleep.  God does not grow weary or distracted from His love for us.  God is always faithful, always dependable.

Isaiah 40:29-31.

He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. 30Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: 31But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint..

From where do we draw strength in times of trouble?  Isaiah has included in this chapter an in-depth discussion of the nature of God, a nature that demonstrates His faithfulness to those whom He loves.  When we try to draw the power to overcome our circumstances either from ourselves or our own circumstances, we rob ourselves of the true source of power:  God Himself.  There is a common child's chorus that states, "this little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine!"  The truth is, those who have placed their faith and trust in the LORD are the light of the world, (Matt. 5:14-16) and that is no little light.  God's light is the very Glory of God that holds the power that created this entire universe.  That resource is available to every believer who places their faith and trust in Him.  That power is engaged every time we turn to the LORD for our strength and for our help.

This passage contains one of the most familiar passages in the book of Isaiah.  What does it mean to "wait upon the LORD"?  The promise is simple:  if we wait upon the LORD, our strength will be renewed and our "flight" will be restored.  If we "wait upon the LORD" the promise is that we will be able to continue on without collapse, that we will have the strength to continue on when times seem too hard to do so.  Some people will take the word "wait" from a single literal English use and understand it to mean that one is to simply rest, to simply sit down and do nothing.  Such resting can renew strength, but it does little or nothing to provide us with the resource to overcome the troubles that impact our lives.  The Hebrew text engages a deeper meaning to the word, "wait."  It involves a trust in the Lord and a surrendering to Him that inspires one to submit to His will, following His lead instead of our own.  There may be some form of waiting involved if it means to stop our head-long effort into solving our problems our own way and pause to listen to the Holy Spirit as He speaks to our hearts.  It may be to wait quietly and listen to that still-small voice of the LORD that we so easily drown out with our own self-will. 

When we continue in our attempt to overcome the many troubles of this world we can become exhausted and disillusioned.  We may even find our situation beyond hope, much as those ancient Jews did who saw their doom at the hands of their warring neighbors.  However, God's promise has never changed:  if we turn to Him in faith, He will protect us and keep us secure in the land of His promise.  Indeed, when we surrender our own self-will to Him and look to Him for our strength, we will find the true source of our sustenance, the true wisdom of His heart, and the meaning behind the issues of our lives.  Why would we ever turn down such an offer of love?