Isaiah 40 27-31 : a time of political and spiritual crisis

Israel and Juda under the domination of the Assyrian empire

esaieIsaiah has been a prophet for forty years in Jerusalem, from the end of the reign of Uzziah in 740 to the beginning of that of Manasseh in 686.

For over a century, the Assyrian Empire, the great political and military power of the time imposed its suzerainty over small states: Syria, Israel and Judah.

Through the pro-assyrian party

This influence is exerted through the pro-Assyrian party  seeking to establish the king and the policy of his choice, not without resistance from the opposing party and power struggles. Several of the last kings of Israel assassinate their predecessor and are murdered by their successor.

These small states establish rebellious sets of alliances, they refuse to pay the imposed taxes, they seek the support of the other great power, Egypt.

Alliances with  catastrophic risks

Because of the tendency to follow the gods, the idols of the stronger, of the dominating power, Isaiah opposes these alliances with foreign powers, which lead to idolatry,

Isaiah prophesies the end of the vassals as well as the end of successive overlord empires, Assyria and Babylonia. Only a remnant of God’s people will repent and return.

Ahaz, an idolatrous king of Judah, prefers to choose an alliance with Assyria rather than to trust in God in the conflict against the kings of Syria and Israel. The kingdom of Judah will become a satellite of Assyria.
As Isaiah prophesied, the Kingdom of Syria was crushed in 732, the kingdom of Israel ceased to exist in 722, the population was deported to Assyria.

Hezekiah, a faithful king but …

Hezekiah,  the son and successor of Ahaz was a faithful king, who trusted God. Chapters 36 to 39, the historical part of the book of Isaiah, tell his dealings with Assyria.
Besieged in 701 by Sennacherib and the Assyrian army, Jerusalem was probably miraculously delivered by a plague that left thousands dead.

But Isaiah must also denounce the pride and the thoughtlessness of the king: he shows all his treasures, i.e. his military power to the Babylonian embassy of Merodach-Baladan who certainly came to congratulate him for his miraculous healing, but especially … to seek an alliance against Assyria. The Babylonians will return later as conquerors and will take the descendants of Hezekiah in captivity.

The prophecy of Isaiah: encouragement in times of crisis

Chapters 40 and following can be read from different perspectives.

Isaiah, the prophet of the eighth century, is probably first addressing directly his contemporaries, who survived the siege of Jerusalem after the withdrawal of Sennacherib in 701. They have not found a true political independence and still fear another invasion.

The message may also apply to the contemporaries of Manasseh, the worst of the kings of Judah. Idolatry and crimes will necessarily bring on them the judgment and the exile announced to Hezekiah.
Finally, the prophecy may contain a message for the exiles who will read it much later in Babylon after the capture of Jerusalem in 586.
Those who want to remain faithful to the Lord need to be  encouraged. They need to know that beyond exile, beyond all the events, there will be a future for the people of God.

Contesting and despair 

Why do you say , O Jacob,
And complain, O Israel :
My way is hidden from the Lord ;
my cause is disregarded by my God ? (NIV)

There is contesting

My destiny is beyond the Lord
There is a defendant:  God does not mind my destiny , it ignores My rights with a large M
There is a protester  : Jacob / Israel, the covenant people;  the prophet calls him by his name

This will take some doing for Israel. God chose her, he revealed to her, he gave her warnings and promises. Will God not take care of his people? What a contradiction !

Isaiah’s “whys” are launched in a tone of rebuke : Why do you say … why do you repeat … ?
The prophet wants them to reflect on their thoughts , their attitudes and their actions.

The tense of the second verb in Hebrew (why do you complain?) suggests that complaints had become a habit in Judah.

My way is hidden , my cause is disregarded : God does nothing to defend my right

The Hebrew verb “abar , literally means ” to miss, ignore. It is as someone’s driving a car beside us without noticing us. I’m down on the road, the cars pass without stopping.

There is discouragement

Israel complains her rights and justice are not at the first place in the plan of God. God is not fair , he should have done things in their own way.

At first sight Israel is right. Many kings have too often despised her rights and her sense of justice. Samuel had warned the people when they had asked for a king ( 1 Samuel 8)

The current political situation is bleak. The Assyrian empire is still in control of the situation. Assyria , or prophetically , Babylonia dominate the region in all political and military issues.
Jerusalem was besieged and famished, but was miraculously delivered under the reign of Hezekiah in 701 (2 Kings 19.35-37 ). But for how long? Destruction and captivity of her inhabitants are announced , but when?

coquelicots

All men are like grass ,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field
(Isaiah 40.6 -7).

 

There is no hope that the imperial domination weakens. No hope either that Israel again becomes powerful enough to shake off the yoke of the tyrant .
The few attempts of the last kings of Israel and, later, of the last kings of Judah were dismal failures. The kingdom of Israel disappeared in 722 and that of Judah in 586 BC

But how dare to contest ?

God is not only the creator but also the who preserves all: celestial bodies , nations and individuals. So how can you,  people of God, with promises and privileges that have been granted to you alone among all nations , how can you say that God has abandoned you ?

This contesting also raises the question: “who is at the helm of the ship, who runs the world, who determines the direction of the story, who determines the role of God’s people “?

The answer is obvious . However, through the words of Isaiah, God wants to help his people to reflect . Of course, nothing has changed in their situation but they cannot see how things will evolve. They lack the awareness of the greatness of God.What do these statements tell us about the thoughts of the people of Israel and also about ours?

What do these statements tell us about the thoughts of the people of Israel and also about ours?

The justice owed to me is disregarded by my God :

In other words, we do not get help at the right time . “Life ” is not fair!

Is this unbelief , is it ignorance ? perhaps both

We do not really believe that God is able to know all the details of our lives . We are unaware of the love he has for us. God is not interested in us , he is too busy with other things to pay attention to our needs.
These charges illustrate the process of hardening of the soul : self- pity , bitterness , frustration, anger. We do not get what we want, so we think we are neglected or abandoned by God, ” nobody loves me .”
The trials and difficulties of life never mean that God has forgotten us or do not care about us .

An everlasting God to the control : Isaiah 40.28

Do you not know? 
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God, 
the Creator of the ends of the earth. 
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.

A people who does not understand

Isaiah introduces the second series of questions to his people in verse 28:
Do you not know, do you not hear = do you not understand


Their knowledge of God is inadequate and shallow. Their outer superficial practice shut and hardened their hearts (29.13).

The unfathomable nature of God

The prophet affirms the unfathomable nature of God. The Lord is God from all eternity. His strategy extends over time. He is not limited to our time. He does not count with human measures but in cosmic dimensions, as wide and far as the sky (v. 12) and the stars (v. 26)

It was he who created the ends of the earth

He alone can measure the extent of oceans, weigh mountains and hills (Isaiah 40.12). His work of creation, but also his providence time of crisis, Isaiahapply to all countries and all creatures of the earth and not only to Israel. He has plans for Assyria and for Babylon, he will later on have others with Cyrus of Persia as well as for Israel.

Israel restricts her right, her justice to her small country. Her limited sense of time requires immediate satisfaction.

He does not get tired, nor exhausted 

even after he has stretched out the heavens like a tent (v. 22), after he has made the army of the stars walk around in order (v. 26).

His intelligence cannot be probed

He is independent and does not need our help
“Whom did the Lord consult to enlighten him? (v. 14)

Nothing can be a threat to God

Nations are like drops in a bucket, like a grain of sand (v. 15) … They have for him the value of nothingness and emptiness (v. 17) The power of Assyria and Babylon may seem terrifying, they are nothing before God. Their kings, he destroys them like chaff (v. 23-24).

 

God gives strength and courage : Isaiah 40.29-31

He (God)  gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. 
Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; 
but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. 
They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. 

 to the weary

He  gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. 

This strength, applied to God, suggests his omnipotence.

This strength for the weary, this vigor for the exhausted, he puts them at the disposal of Israel described in verses 6 and 7 as a fading flower, as a grass that withers. He gives them to all who acknowledge their weakness, their limits. He even gives them to those who believe themselves strong, who have the illusion of strength but may falter and fall

Young people tired and stumble

Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; 

“Young Men” comes from a word that means elected, chosen to bear arms, so these are men in the prime of life. This word is mostly used in a context of judgment.
Even young men, symbols of power and renewal of the nation, stumble and collapse. Human strength is nothing. It is often rather obstinacy, stubbornness: an illusion of strength.

The real strength is not to persist in false positions, to be aware of one’s limitations, not to deceive oneself about one’s abilities or long-term resistance, but to trust God’s unlimited abilities .

But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength

They will soar on wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

Trusting in the Lord is a hope that awaits or an expectation that hopes. Confidence gets evident in the long term. Isaiah encourages his fellow countrymen of whom, as a prophet, he knows they will be exiles in Babylon, to continue in their faith.
The eagle soars, not by the power of its wings, but of the wind streams that raise its fins.

Nor by power, nor by strength, but by my Spirit. (Zacharia 4.6)

The spirit of God warns those who trust God. They will receive the strength and patience necessary to overcome difficult times, not to get tired, not to weaken, but to continue.
Do not camp on our rights and do not fall into depression, but remain silent before the Lord and hope in Him (Psalm 37), submitting to God as Christ did (1 Peter 2.21).

C.S.