Sunday, June 24, 2007

Isaiah's Message of Hope and Comfort - Part 2

The next few verses in Isaiah 40 establish the foundation of our comfort and hope in God:

"A voice of one calling:
'In the desert prepare
the way for the LORD;
make straight in the wilderness
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
and all mankind together will see it.
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken'" (Isaiah 40:3-5).

God promises to someday reveal Himself in glory to the entire world. This is one of the central promises God makes to His People in the Old Testament: "I will be your God; you will be My People; And I will dwell with you." In the New Testament, verse 40:3 is applied directly to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth (Matt 3:3). Through Isaiah, God is emphasizing that our hope is grounded in His promises, which He - being God - can be trusted to fulfill.

"See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power,
and his arm rules for him.
See, his reward is with him,
and his recompense accompanies him.
He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young" (Isaiah 40:10-11).

Often, the "coming of the LORD" in the Hebrew Scriptures points to God coming in judgment; here, however, the focus is on His compassion and tenderness towards those who love Him. He is Sovereign over all because He is the Creator of all things, and when He comes to rule, His "arm" will rule for Him. While "arm" may simply be a personification of power, Christians and Messianic Jews have interpreted this (and many other such references: Arm, Branch, Root, etc.) as referring to the coming Messiah. This inference is reinforced in the New Testatment book of Revelation, where the words spoken here of God are placed in the mouth of Jesus (Revelation 22:12).

"To whom, then, will you compare God?
What image will you compare him to?" (Isiaiah 40:18).

"Image" refers in this context to idols - manmade objects of worship. It is foolish to create one's own God - which is not even alive! - when the true and living God has made His existence apparent to everyone (Romans 1:18). He is incomparable in the literal sense of the word - an infinite, all-powerful Being that cannot be compared to anyone or anything else.

In Isaiah's time, people carved idols out of stone or wood; today, they create idols in their hearts: Money, fame, success, social status; pleasure. An idol is anything that replaces God, and for most of us, the most potent idol is ourselves. I know in the past, I've made idols out of many things - my mind, my writing, my education. But if we want to experience true comfort and have a hope for the future, our focus must become less self-centered and more God-ward.

"Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood since the earth was founded?
He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
and spreads them out like a tent to live in" (Isaiah 40:21-22).

God's promises can be trusted because He is above and outside the world. And Isaiah says that these things have been known about God from the very beginning. If God is the God of the Bible - and the Bible says over and over again that we know in our heart of hearts that God exists - we must go deep into our hearts to see if that is true.

By the way, there are hints, here, of modern cosmology, not that of 700 B.C. - the earth is a "circle," the heavens "stretched out." Pretty cool, huh?

"Lift your eyes and look to the heavens:
Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one,
and calls them each by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing" (Isaiah 40:26).

The 20th Century philosopher Immanual Kant said he was troubled in his atheistic philosophy by two things: The Moral Law within man, and the Heavens without. Here, Isaiah appeals to the Heavens as evidence of a Creator. Yes, stars burn out and explode in supernovae, but their elements are not "missing." Indeed, as Carl Sagan famously said, "Our bodies consist of elements cooked in the hearts of ancient stars; we are truly star-stuff." We've talked before about the huge philosophical/theological implications of the Universe having a Beginning - of the Singularity.

Isaiah is not making a carefully crafted philosophical argument. His purpose is to convey the hope and comfort offered by the mighty Creator of the Heavens. This hope is grounded in God's promises, which in turn, are established by His power and character to keep them.

He is coming. He will establish His rule forever. He will gather those who love Him like sheep and tenderly lead us.

We'll finish Isaiah 40 in a future entry.

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