If we acknowledge God as the creator of the universe, we must acknowledge his power. What we may have a more difficult time recognizing is what that power means for our lives. Does he make his power available to us in a way that benefits us? And if he does, how do we tap into this power?
Before a great explosion takes place in a quarry, long, tiny
holes must be bored into rocks. It is that way with the power
of the Lord. The power of the Lord is not given indiscriminately,
but to those who "wait for the Lord," according to Isaiah.
The Lord strengthens those who wait for him, who actively cling
to him and hope in the deliverance that he promises. Thus we bore
holes into rocks, so to speak, making ourselves available to the
Lord and his power.
Isaiah, anticipating Israel's exile in Babylon, envisions a dispute between the Lord and his people. The exiles have begun to doubt the Lord's willingness or ability to help Israel. Isaiah 40:12-31 conveys this dispute through a series of questions asked of Israel. The focal question is in verse 27: "Why do you say, O Jacob, and assert, O Israel, 'My way is hidden from the Lord, and the justice due me escapes the notice of my God?'" This question brings out Israel's doubts about the Lord. All the questions in the passage lead to this question. These questions, then, lead us to this final question, which brings out our doubts about the Lord's willingness or ability to help us.
The wisdom and power of the Lord (40:12-26)
In this section the Lord's power and wisdom are seen in his acts of creation and in his sovereignty over it. His power and wisdom are shown as superior to others with claims to power and wisdom: the nations (40:15-17), pagan religions (40:18-20) and the rulers of the world (40:23-24). These were the powers that seemingly held Israel in captivity.
Through poetic imagery, both the nations and its rulers are shown to be "nothing" and "meaningless" in the face of the Lord (verses 17, 23). Pagan religions are shown to be dependent on mere human ingenuity, effort and finances (40:19-20). The rulers and judges of the earth are also shown to be "nothing" and "meaningless" (verse 23).
The first two sets of questions as to who the Lord may be compared to (40:12-14, 18) have answers that are shown to be untenable. The final question (verse 25) has no answer. The point made by implication is what was made obvious by the previous answers: The Lord is beyond comparison.
We don't need to fear the nations, their religions or their rulers. Conversely, neither should we trust in the nations, their religions or their rulers. The powers are nothing and meaningless before the power and wisdom of the Lord.
Consider the universe. Consider its immensity and its complexity.
Take a few moments from time to time to look at the mountains,
the ocean, the heavens. They are speaking of their creator. "The
heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is
declaring the work of his hands. Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge" (Psalm 19:1-2). The
universe is telling us of the power and wisdom of its creator
and is begging us to worship him.
If the Lord is so powerful, why do the powers have any power? Why are they oppressing us? What does the Lord do with his power and wisdom? It looks as if he uses his power and wisdom to care for creation, but what about us?
The material in verses 25 and 26 begins to answer these questions, providing a key transition to the final and focal section in the passage. The Lord asks the question in verse 25, as he did in verse 18 with almost identical wording, "To whom then will you liken me, that I should be his equal?" The significant difference is that in verse 18 "God" was the reference whereas in verse 25 "me" is the reference. Through use of the personal pronoun, the Lord is presenting himself in a more intimate, personal way. In search of an answer to this question, Israel should look to the heavens and acknowledge that the Lord created and cares for the stars. Again, his power and wisdom are being illustrated.
Verse 26 would especially get Israel's attention. In being directed to consider the stars, Israel would be reminded of the Lord's promises to make its descendants as numerous as the stars (Exodus 32:13). When the promise was first made to Abraham, he was told to look to the heavens, just as Israel is told to do now (Genesis 15:5). When describing how the Lord exercises his power and wisdom on behalf of the stars, he evokes the image of a shepherd: "He leads forth their host by number"; "he calls them by name"; "not one of them is missing." Isaiah has just declared that the Lord will return to his people "like a shepherd" (Isaiah 40:11). There is more than a hint, then, that the Lord will exercise his power and wisdom on behalf of his people.
That's what the Lord will do for his people. But what about the here and now?
The strength the Lord gives (40:27-31)
If the Lord's power and wisdom are beyond compare, Israel wonders, "Why are we suffering in exile? Where are his power and wisdom?" Israel concludes, "My way is hidden from the Lord, and the justice due me escapes the notice of my God." Israel, pleading its case in the cosmic courtroom, feels unheard. Perhaps "my way" is not significant enough to be heard by such a powerful God. Perhaps the "justice due me" does not concern him in the least. Or, perhaps he's not so powerful and wise after all. Perhaps he is weak and uninformed. Perhaps he has been overthrown by the Babylonian gods and has gone into captivity with us. If this is "my God," and he is able and knowledgeable, he should do something about our plight.
Who among us has not come to similar conclusions? We too wonder
why our God, if he is so powerful and wise, doesn't act decisively
in the midst of our circumstances. Our conclusions, too, imply
that we are doubtful about whether he is willing or able to act.
The prophet challenges Israel's conclusions. In the manner in which he addresses the people, he shows them that their assertions are fallacious. He calls them "Jacob" and then, in the parallel phrase, "Israel." The Lord chose Jacob and changed his name to Israel. God's promises are for "Israel." Israel is still the chosen people of the Lord, and its way is by no means hidden from him, and the justice due it has not escaped his notice.
Isaiah then asks the same two questions he did in verse 21: "Do you not know? Have you not heard?" The two questions imply that Israel needs to relearn what it has known and heard. It needs to know that its God "knows"; it needs to hear that its God "hears."
The immediate answer to the questions sum up everything that has already been said about the Lord in verses 12 to 31: The Lord "does not become weary or tired" (he is powerful) and "his understanding is inscrutable" (he is wise), as evidenced by his work in creation. Israel is not in exile because the Lord is weak or lacking in understanding. The Lord is able to act, and he knows what he is doing.
In that the Lord does not become weary or tired, he is like a watchman who always stays awake and never misses a thing, so he is well-aware of Israel's plight. In that his understanding is inscrutable, he is like a judge whose decisions are beyond question, so Israel will receive justice. In verse 14 Isaiah connected the Lord's "justice" and "understanding," showing that because the Lord is understanding, he is able to pass judgment perfectly. His timing, therefore, is impeccable. Israel is asking questions about the Lord's understanding, but his understanding is inscrutable-it is beyond Israel's capacity to discern.
We need to relearn what we know and have heard. We need to know that God knows; we need to hear that he hears. Whatever form of oppression you find yourself under, you are not there because the Lord is weak or lacking in wisdom. He is able to act, and he knows what he's doing. He is able to help, he knows how to help and he knows when to help. His timing is impeccable. His understanding is such that we can never understand his multifaceted purposes for the things that he allows into our lives. Specifically, we cannot find out why God does what he does.
Job never found out why he suffered, but after the Lord gave
him a tour of creation, Job said of his earlier complaints, "Therefore,
I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful
for me, which I did not know" (Job 42:3).
In verses 27 and 28, Isaiah has not said anything different about the Lord from what he said in verses 12 through 26. He has simply brought Israel into focus. In verses 29 and 30, however, though he still focuses on the Lord's power and wisdom, he says some different things about the Lord. He tells Israel what the Lord does with his power and wisdom.
The Lord "gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might, he increases power." "Strength," "might" and "power" have been ascribed to the Lord (verse 26), and now the Lord uses them not only on behalf of his people but to endue them with that very same strength, might and power. Specifically, he gives such strength to the weary. He doesn't become weary (verse 28), but his people do.
To become weary is to weaken under some form of pressure. To lack might is to be without inner resources to respond to the pressure. What has caused Israel to become weary? Her Babylonian oppressors have beaten her down, and she has no resources within herself to live successfully in captivity. Captivity has sapped her of energy for life.
This should not be surprising, because even "youths grow weary and tired, and vigorous young men stumble badly." The second line is even more dramatic than the first, for "vigorous young men" are the best of the "youths," and they not only grow weary and tired, as all youths do, but they stumble badly. The best runners can't run forever. They all stumble eventually. What, then, should the weary do? What should those who lack might do? How do they get this strength and power that the Lord gives?
The magnificent answer is in verse 31: "Yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength." They should wait for the Lord. The word "wait" contains within it the concept of hope. It means to wait confidently for something. The people are supposed to wait for the Lord to administer justice and fulfill his promise to liberate and vindicate his people. This is how they will "gain new strength." They will not gain new strength when the Lord acts to liberate them; they will gain new strength as they wait for the Lord to liberate them. The weary and weak are strengthened as they wait for the Lord. They find supernatural strength to endure captivity and even flourish within it: "They will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary." The Lord is not looking to change the circumstances of Israel in exile; he is looking to change Israel in exile. He has sent Israel into exile for the purpose of spiritual reformation. The scene of this reformation is, of all places, Babylon, the place of oppression.
Weariness and weakness, then, are prerequisites to spiritual reformation. When the pressures of life cause us to realize that we lack the resources to live fruitfully, we are motivated to wait for the Lord. Weakness does not preclude faith; it's a reason for it. Waiting is anything but passive. It involves an active application of mind and heart to the task of hoping in the Lord to fulfill his promise to deliver us. We throw ourselves at the Lord, believing that if he doesn't catch us, all is lost. We bank on his goodness. Waiting for the Lord involves directing mind and heart to prayer, scripture and worship.
We have trouble disciplining ourselves in such a way, but weariness and weakness motivate us. Until we grow weary and acknowledge our weakness, we tend to choose anything but heartfelt, desperate dependence on the Lord. As Ben Patterson says, "When you're well, you think you're in charge. When you're sick, you know you're not." In our weariness, we turn to the Lord.
The widow in Jesus' parable in Luke 18:1-8 is a symbol of weakness.
Jesus told the parable "to show that at all times they ought
to pray and not to lose heart." That's exactly what Isaiah
is encouraging the exiles to do when he tells them to wait for
the Lord. The widow, in her desperation, persistently appeals
to a judge, the only one who can grant her justice. Her desperate,
persistent appeals to the judge are used as an illustration of
the "faith" Jesus is looking for (Luke 18:8). When we
in our weakness pray to the Lord and wait for the Lord, the Lord
finds what he's looking for.
When we turn to the Lord, he gives us his strength; we gain new strength. Waiting for the Lord-hoping in his deliverance-is the means by which the Lord strengthens us. In the process of actively waiting for the Lord, we are exercising spiritual muscles, if you will. Connecting with what the Lord will do in the future gives us strength for today. This means you can not only survive oppressive circumstances, you can flourish spiritually-even soar like eagles-in the middle of them.
The Lord takes us to Babylon, where we feel oppressed, constricted and closed in, so that we will recognize our weakness, and actively wait and hope for him. This is how the Lord brings about spiritual reformation in our lives. This is how he forms men and women who are spiritually strong. This is how he is forming you into the man or woman he wants you to be.
Note the progression-or what actually appears to be a regression-in the last three lines of verse 31. As a result of the supernatural strength given by the Lord, we will soar like eagles, run and not get tired, and walk and not become weary. We go from flying, to running to walking. It seems as if it should be the other way around: We start out walking and eventually fly. But walking in the strength given by the Lord is seen as the most advanced spiritual exercise. There will be moments in the spiritual life when we feel as if we're soaring, as if we've risen above it all. There will also be moments, probably more frequent, when we feel as if we're running, as if we've hit some kind of stride. But most of life consists of walking. It may not feel like much of an accomplishment; it's not glamorous; and it doesn't get much attention. But as we wait and hope in the Lord, he gives us the strength to put one foot in front of the other. To live in faithful dependence on the Lord step by step is the greatest accomplishment of all.
He will deliver us. He will lead us to freedom. But for now, he's forming us into the people who will be ready for freedom and can live in it.
Is there some form of oppression in your life at the moment? Do you feel somehow constricted and closed in? Does it feel in any way as if you're in captivity, living in exile? Are you therefore weary, lacking in strength? Life in the Silicon Valley can make you feel that way. It can wear you out. Perhaps, even as a vigorous young person, you've already stumbled badly. You're tired of the pressure; you're tired of the pace of life here; you're tired of your workplace; you're tired of your living arrangement; you're tired of living under a weight of expectations; you're tired of being single; you're tired of your fears. You're in a situation in which you feel trapped, and it's sapped you of strength. If you feel weary and weak, give thanks! You are now a candidate for God's strength.
Are you wondering what the Lord is doing with all his power and wisdom? Are you, like Israel, asserting, "My way is hidden from the Lord, and the justice due me escapes the notice of my God"? Wait for the Lord! What does the Lord do with his power and wisdom? His power and his wisdom are for us! He doesn't change the circumstances; he changes us. The key at first lies not in liberating ourselves from oppressive circumstances; it lies in waiting for the Lord. In that way the Lord enables us to transcend our circumstances.
Jim Cymbala, pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle, writes of the
discovery he made as he acknowledged his weakness: "That
evening, when I was at my lowest, confounded by obstacles, bewildered
by the darkness that surrounded us, unable even to continue preaching,
I discovered an astonishing truth: God is attracted to weakness.
He can't resist those who humbly and honestly admit how desperately
they need him. Our weakness, in fact, makes room for his power."
That "astonishing truth" is the one taught in Isaiah
Remember, in Jesus Christ, "we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:15-16). Paul calls Christ, particularly "Christ crucified" (1 Corinthians 1:23), "the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Corinthians 1:24). In Christ, God in his wisdom lavished the riches of his grace on us (Ephesians 1:7-8), and his power toward us is surpassingly great (Ephesians 1:19).
The twin themes of verses 12 through 26-the power and wisdom of the Lord-resurface in the final section, verses 27 through 31. Whereas his power and wisdom are seen in creation earlier, they are now seen in his people. This passage, then, first invites us to consider the universe and to imagine the power and wisdom responsible for its creation and maintenance. Then it invites us to believe that the one responsible for creation makes that very same power and wisdom available to us. In his wisdom, he does a powerful work in our lives.
The passage also invites us to specifically consider the stars, which the Lord leads, names and protects like a shepherd. The stars remind us of the Lord's promise to deliver us. He causes the stars to shine. He will do the same for us. Believing that he will do that, we wait for him. In his wisdom, he gives his power to those who wait for him, and they will mount up with wings like eagles; they will run and not get tired; they will walk and not become weary.
So, start boring those holes-wait for the Lord-and watch for the explosion.
Scripture quotations are taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE ("NASB"). © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. Where indicated, Scripture quotations were also taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION ("NIV"). © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.
January 30, 2000
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