May 2, 2011 David Balzer

Isaiah 40: When your world falls apart

Have you ever been waiting at a train station when one of those long distance interstate trains roars through? Like an XPT or the Ghan or the Indian Pacific?

It’s all dark, rumbling energy. Busyness and importance and purpose. Dozens of carriages filled with people and baggage and freight all heading to significant destinations.

Picking up Isaiah at chapter 40 is like trying to catch the Indian Pacific as it speeds through your station at 80 kmh. If you try to jump on from a standing start, you’ll get smashed.

So, we’re going to spend the FIRST half of today getting up to speed on where “the Isaiah Express” is headed. Who’s on board, what it’s carrying, where it’s headed, and what the timetable is. Then we’ll get to Ch 40.

The first 39 chapters cover the years 740 to 686 BC, about 54 years. Israel had been split into two kingdoms, northern Israel and southern Judah, for about 200 years, since 930 BC.

And they’re set in Jerusalem, the capital of the southern kingdom of Judah. And they summarise the ministry of the prophet Isaiah.

Jump back to ch 1 v1. We find out that he prophesied, following the death of Uzziah, the king of Judah, through the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and finally Hezekiah.

And his message, time and again, year after year, was that God was ANGRY with his people. They REFUSED to follow him. Like down in v3 of ch 1.

3 The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” 4 Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him.

Or jump down to v11. They served him ON THE OUTSIDE, keeping traditions and rituals, but there was no genuine love or commitment there. God HATES hypocrites!

11 “The multitude of your sacrifices–what are they to me?” says the LORD.”I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats… 13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings!… …(14) They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers ,I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; 16 wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight

And God’s warning, if they kept ignoring him, was that judgment would come. Judgment in the form of a foreign conqueror. And, over to ch 8, God NAMES the threat. Assyria. The world super-power of the day. Ch 8 v 4.

4 Before the boy knows how to say ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by THE KING OF ASSYRIA.”

And that came true as Assyria, threateningly, stormed closer and closer. Damascus fell to Assyria in 732, and Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, fell 10 years later. And were carried off into exile.

But the southern kingdom of Judah, where Isaiah was based, refused to take the warning. Even as Assyria threatened.

And the rest of the chapters, up to 35, tell the story of God’s judgment, not just against the surrounding nations, but against Judah as well.

But thrown in with the warning of JUDGMENT are promises of RESTORATION AND PROTECTION. In particular, for God’s REMNANT – a small portion of FAITHFUL people – who he’ll spare, and bring into new prosperity and freedom. Like ch 10 v20.

20 In that day the REMNANT of Israel, the survivors of the house of Jacob, will no longer rely on him who struck them down but will truly rely on the LORD ,the Holy One of Israel. 21 A REMNANT will return, a remnant of Jacob will return to the Mighty God. 22 Though your people, O Israel, be like the sand by the sea, only a remnant will return. Destruction has been decreed, overwhelming and righteous. 23 The Lord, the LORD Almighty, will carry out the destruction decreed upon the whole land.

And there’s more we could say. About how God’s promises for a remnant aren’t just going to be from JUDAH, but from ALL the nations. For the whole WORLD.

And more on the POLITICAL situation involving alliances with Egypt.

But as we come to ch 36 there’s a change from the POETRY of Isaiah’s prophecy to HISTORICAL NARRATIVE. And we get FOUR CHAPTERS describing the fall of the Assyrian threat. As well as the rise of the Babylonian threat.

Like America and China. One super power on the way DOWN, the other on the way UP.

Or, if you like, it’s a bit like the episodes played out on the pages of the newspapers in the last few weeks. The demise of ONE leader, and the RISE of ANOTHER. I’m talking about the Australian cricket team. Ricky Ponting’s reign as captain is OVER. And Michael Clarke’s the NEW captain.

Ch 36 and 37 describe how the dark clouds of Assyrian invasion finally lifted. Around 700 BC. How Hezekiah finally mustered up the faith to pray for God’s deliverance as the Assyrian army surrounded Jerusalem, taunted the people, and insulted God.

And how God acted in SMALL as well as SPECTACULAR ways. How, 37:7, he put a spirit in the Assyrian king, a little unsettling whisper, a feeling in the pit of his stomach, so that when he heard news from home, he stressed about it enough to leave Jerusalem to deal with it. And there he was murdered by his own sons.

Small action from God. You could almost dismiss it as coincidence.  The king heard a dangerous rumour, so he went home, and was killed. Hardly seems miraculous AT ALL. But God was behind it.

Just as much as he was behind the BIG miracle. The destruction of the king’s ARMY, AS WELL. Ch 37 v36. God sent his angel through their camp, and 185,000 were killed OVERNIGHT. Without an arrow being fired. Miraculous! And Assyria was gone. And Jerusalem was spared.

For the moment.

Because, while ASSYRIA is gone, BABYLON’S on the rise as a world power. Which is introduced in ch 38. The FIRST 37 chapters are about ASSYRIA. The REST of the book concerns Babylon.

Ch 38 describes Hezekiah on death’s door. God tells him he’ll die, then in response to his prayer, heals him. Once again, in SMALL as well as SPECTACULAR ways.

The healing comes via a hot pack of figs applied to the boil (38:21). And God uses THAT to heal him. Not too spectacular!

But to PROVE to Hezekiah he’s going to do it, he winds the sun back a few hours. Stops the earth spinning, and turns it back a few degrees! That’s pretty spectacular!

And then into ch 39, the king of far-off Babylon hears about Hezekiah’s miraculous recovery, and sends a get well card via some envoys. Hezekiah’s so pleased, he shows the envoys all over his palace.

But when Isaiah finds out the news, he prophesies that God’s judgment is still hanging over Israel. And that it will be BABYLON that conquers Jerusalem, and carries off all the treasure he’s shown them. Assyria’s not the threat anymore.

It’s some time in the future.

And even though Isaiah warns that some of Hezekiah’s own descendents will be carried off to Babylon, Hezekiah’s relieved. Because at least there’ll be peace and security in his lifetime. So we come to the end of Ch 39. The year is about 700 BC.

But by the very next verse, into ch 40, we get a HUGE jump forward in time. Over a hundred years.

Isaiah dies. But he leaves behind the writings of his prophecy.

The Babylonian empire grows in power, and by 612, it invades Nineveh. In 609 King Josiah of Judah dies, then Zedekiah finally provokes Nebuchadnezzar’s final assault on Jerusalem. The city falls in 597, with exiles deported to Babylon, and more following in 586.

And that’s the hopeless situation chapters 40-66 speak about. To Jews exiled in Babylon. There’s no temple, no land, no king, hardly even a people.

But chapters 40-66, from the long dead Isaiah, speak God’s words of comfort. The message of ch 40 that we’re looking at today says “You’re on a train that IS headed SOMEWHERE. God’s got a timetable and a destination. Trust him!

So now you’re up to speed, let’s (finally) jump on board.

We can break Ch 40 up into two parts. The gospel of God (v1-9), and the God of the gospel (the rest of the chapter).

The gospel of God (1-9)

Firstly, the gospel of God. The GOOD NEWS about God. God’s speaking, through the prophet. And he’s speaking words of COMFORT. Comfort that comes in four big hugs.

First. You are God’s people. There in v1. “Comfort, comfort MY PEOPLE.” Despite appearances. Despite it LOOKING like God’s abandoned you. Despite being in a strange land, surrounded by strangers. Despite no temple or city or king. You still belong to God. So take COMFORT.

Second. Your sins have been paid for. Verse 2.

2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.

Decades of exile had hammered home to the Jews that God was punishing them. That they’d rebelled, ignored, and disobeyed him. But now there was the incredible news that all was forgiven. Somehow, without explanation, God was willing to forgive generations of sin. Simply counting 50 or 60 years of exile by ONE generation as sufficient punishment to clear the debt for THE WHOLE NATION across HUNDREDS OF YEARS.

It’s almost beyond comprehension. It’s just stated as FACT. “Your sin’s been paid for.” In fact, it’s LEFT UNEXPLAINED until ch 53 where we find out HOW sin is paid for. About the suffering servant who would bear the punishment Israel COULDN’T  on her behalf. About Jesus, God’s perfect Son, who was pierced for our transgressions. And about how the punishment that brought us PEACE was brought on HIM.

But here in ch 40, it mightn’t be EXPLAINED, but it’s OBVIOUS. The relationship’s been restored. The offence forgiven. And so, there’s COMFORT.

I don’t know whether you use something like TIME OUT to discipline your kids. When it works BEST is when the kids feel the broken relationship. They know you’re UPSET with their behaviour, and they’re SEPARATED from you. But then when they’re allowed out of their room, and you give them a hug, and tell them everything’s alright!. The relationship is RESTORED, it’s WONDERFUL! And the kids are comforted and reassured.

But, with Israel, that’s only HALF comfort if the people remain stuck in Babylon. And so the next part of God’s comforting hug is there from v3. God’s going to ACT on his forgiveness. There’ll be PHYSICAL EXPRESSION of that restored relationship. He’ll return to his country, and he’ll bring his people WITH him. Get ready! God’s coming! V3.

3 A voice of one calling: “In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.   4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. 5 And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

They hardly feel like God’s people at all. But God’s promising to reveal his glory for everyone to see. To restore his people to their land just like he’s restored their relationship with him. And he’s SMOOTHING THE WAY for it to happen.

Once more, there’ll be a VISIBLE EXPRESSION of God’s kingdom. Of God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule.

(We find out HOW in the next few chapters. God’s going to use PERSIA, and its king, Cyrus, to DO it. We read about how it happened in Ezra and Daniel. But for the moment, that’s off in the future.)

The FOURTH part of God’s comforting hug for them is there in v6. If it all seems too good to believe, then remember THIS. God’s PROMISED it, so you can COUNT on it. God’s word can be trusted. Everything else is “here today and gone tomorrow”. But not God’s word! V8.

8 The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.”

We all know it with our HEADS, but so often we don’t LIVE like it. We live like the things that last – things that MATTER – are the stuff we buy, and make, and sit on, and drive, and play with, and covet and hoard.

But the reality is only God’s word stands forever.

It’s one of the good things to be praying for people in the midst of all the floods and tsunamis and earthquakes of the last few months. That they might recognise the TRUTH of v8. That all the OTHER things they put their trust in – homes, jobs, families, health, investments, shopping – NONE of it’s reliable. NONE of it LASTS. The only thing that can be TRUSTED is God’s word. God HIMSELF is the only trustworthy, reliable, dependable thing in a world that’s passing away.

à So declare “Here is your God!” (9-11)

So, how do you RESPOND to four comforting truths like that? Whether it be Isaiah and Israel. Or you and I TODAY. By DECLARING that God to whoever will listen. Not just PRAYING for people who lose everything in disasters. But TELLING THEM that God’s the only reliable one. Look there in v9.

9 You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, DO NOT BE AFRAID; say to the towns of Judah, “HERE IS YOUR GOD!” 10 See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and his arm rules for him.

HERE IS YOUR GOD! He’s NOT imaginary! He’s not VINDICTIVE, or ANGRY, or DISINTERESTED, or IMPOTENT.

He’s POWERFUL. He’s acted in history. He’s judged and saved. But not just that. V11. He’s the gentle shepherd who forgives, protects, restores and leads his people.

And if it was clear for those Old Testament believers. How much MORE obvious is it FOR US to be able to point people to JESUS. To the perfect man who walked and talked among us. Who died and was raised from death, witnessed by hundreds. Jesus, the perfect visible representation of the invisible God. How much easier for US to point people to Jesus. And say, “Here is your God!”

And DON’T BE AFRAID! We need to hear that just as much as God’s OLD testament people did. Don’t be afraid of ridicule, or public opinion, or political correctness. Proclaim “Here is your God! Rejoice in him, and submit to him! He’s glorious, and he’s WORTH it!”

The God of the gospel (12-26)

That’s the gospel of God. Next we focus on the GOD OF THE GOSPEL. From v12.

The reason the message about God is so GOOD. And the reason God’s message is so powerful, and his word is so RELIABLE is BECAUSE OF WHO HE IS.

And so when we’re at our lowest point, the greatest comfort we can receive is to be pointed to GOD. When we take our eyes off God, and start counting our OWN resources, we start to lose hope. We wallow in self-pity when we look at our failures, or our excuses, or our opposition, or our bank balances. Instead of focussing our gaze on the powerful, wise, holy, communicating, rescuing, loving, INCOMPARABLE God we meet in the Bible.

And so that’s the message God’s bringing his people through Isaiah. And WE need to eavesdrop in TOO. From v12, nothing compares with God’s POWER.

12 Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens?

Or v13-14. nothing compares with God’s WISDOM.

13 Who has understood the mind of the LORD, or instructed him as his counselor?

Or from v15, nothing compares to God in his CONTROL OF HISTORY. In how he rules over nations and governments. The king over kings. And Lord over lords.

15 Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales;

Dust on the scales! A quick blow and they’re GONE! Assyria – GONE. Babylon – GONE! They seem so huge to us. But to God – NOTHING!

Or from v18 – what about OTHER GODS? Ridiculous question! Laughable! V20 A man making an idol carefully chooses wood that won’t rot! And then the craftsman makes sure he flattens the base properly so it won’t topple over. And then they bow down and worship what they’ve made. Making sure they don’t bump the table!

Crazy!

And yet TODAY it’s CHRISTIANS who are ridiculed for being old-fashioned and simplistic. While people worship crystals and follow astrology or Scientology, or meditate in teepees, or worship Gaia or Mother Nature. Or believe the Universe will give them what they want if they just believe it STRONGLY enough. CRAZY!

But God is INCOMPARABLE! He’s the One who MADE the stars, and the crystals, and the forests, and THE UNIVERSE. Down to v25.

25 “To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One. 26 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.

That’s the picture the Jews need reminding of. When they’re tempted to think God’s forgotten them. That they’re abandoned. V27.

27 Why do you say, O Jacob, and complain, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD; my cause is disregarded by my God”? 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.

God’s the one who knows and counts off every one of the billions of stars that make up the Universe. How could he forget his people?

And he’s ETERNAL. Everlasting. He stands outside of time, looking at the whole of history like we might watch a conveyor belt rolling past. He sees the end and the beginning. All at once. Nothing tires him, nothing confuses him, nothing out-muscles him.

He’s INCOMPARABLE!

à So hope in the LORD (27-31)

And when you put it like THAT, the right response is OBVIOUS! When things are hope-LESS, when you lack strength and understanding and influence. You put your HOPE in a God LIKE THAT. V29.

29 He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. 30 Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; 31 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.

And that’s God’s promise TO US, TOO. That WE put our HOPE in him. As we pray for a non-Christian family member, as we look for relief from chronic illness, as we persevere in a job we hate, or a marriage that’s cold, or a ministry that’s thankless. As we patiently do the hard yards raising kids who exhaust us.

Put your HOPE in him. That the infinitely STRONG One will give us HIS strength. Because 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.

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