'City of Angels'
In the movie "City of Angels," Meg Ryan plays a surgeon, Dr. Maggie Rice, who is something of a control freak. When a patient dies on the operating table, her world begins to crack. "I did everything right and I still couldn't save him. That's not supposed to happen!" Later she says, "After all this time, after all this work, I suddenly have this feeling that none of this is in my hands-none of it. What do I do with that?"
Indeed, what do we do with that? What do we do when we sense
that "none of this" is in our hands? Some of us sometimes
turn to idols, false gods, hoping that they will meet our needs
and defend us against the unexpected. On the other hand, the Lord,
the true God, is waiting for us to worship him. He tells us that
he controls history for our benefit.
Isaiah 41 is framed by law court scenes in which the Lord calls the pagan nations forward for judgment (41:1-7, 22-29). The middle section (40:8-20), which breaks down into three subsections (40:8-13, 14-16, 17-20), focuses on Israel and what the Lord will do for it. The passage therefore offers comfort to God's people and judges idolaters, but in the judgment there is an invitation to forsake idolatry and worship the God of Israel.
The insecurity of idolatry (41:1-7)
The "coastlands," further defined as "the peoples," are the Gentile nations. The Lord invites them to "gain new strength" in coming forward for judgment. Isaiah said that "those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength," being spiritually transformed (Isaiah 40:31). Although the strength called for here is the strength required to come forward for judgment, the grammatical link shows that the Lord is also offering his strength to the Gentiles, if only they will forsake their gods and trust in him (Isaiah 19:24-25, 27:13).
In verses 2 through 4, the Lord states his case, showing that he controls world history. The one he has aroused from the east and called to his feet as a servant is-or will be, actually-Cyrus of Medo-Persia (Isaiah 44:24-47:15). Cyrus will conquer kingdoms with ease, even the mighty Babylon, and Medo-Persia will rise to world dominance, beginning, as it turned out, in 539 B.C. He will do so as if he "had not been traversing with his feet"-as if he were flying. The Lord, being the self-existent "first," has called generations, or nations, into existence, and he is "with the last," present as nations fade from the scene. The words "I am he" are related to God's name, "Yahweh," and refer to his self-existent, changeless nature. He is the one responsible for the rising and toppling of kingdoms, the rising of Medo-Persia and the toppling of Babylon.
After the Lord presents his argument, the nations prepare their case in verses 5 through 7. Upon drawing near and coming for judgment, they first respond with fear and trembling. They have the opportunity to acknowledge the superiority of the Lord, but instead they turn to their gods. First each "helps" his neighbor by telling him to "be strong" in this time of judgment. Whereas the Lord offers his strength to his people (Isaiah 40:31, 41:10), the pagans can only encourage each other to be strong in themselves.
Their "strength" is in commissioning idol makers,
who try to strengthen each other and work hard enough and expertly
enough so that they may anxiously proclaim, "It is good."
No matter how good their idol is, they still have to fasten it
so that it doesn't totter. At the end of verse 7, the case of
the coastlands appears as shaky as their idols. Beginning in verse
22, they will present their case.
Idolatry-dependence on gods other that the Lord-is a fear-based attempt to meet needs and defend against threats, such as the appearance of "one from the east." What do you do when one from the east shows up and it looks as if he might destroy your world? Sometimes, we crank up the idol-making machine. We hope that the gods we trust in-power, money, success, sex, nature, food and drink, intellectualism, whatever-will stand up to the inevitable invasion. In that we constantly strengthen ourselves; invest more effort in our idols; attempt to convince ourselves with words such as, "It is good"; worry whether our idols will totter and crash to the earth, we demonstrate the insecurity we feel in our idolatry. Better to worship a God who meets actual needs and truly defends us.
The Lord's activity for his people (41:8-20)
In this section, the Lord turns his attention from the Gentiles to Israel. His disposition toward Israel is entirely different. He applies three images of weakness to Israel-those of a servant, a worm and a desert wanderer-in order to show how he provides for it.
A servant would not be expected to have much standing, but if the master is the Lord, just described in verses 1-7, that changes things. Moses was called "the servant of the Lord," and he was vindicated in his case against Pharaoh.
In verses 8 and 9, the servant's position is strengthened by the Lord's choice of him, which began with Abraham, the Lord's friend, and continued unbroken through history and abides currently with Abraham's descendant, Israel. Whereas the Gentile nations, depicted as "the ends of the earth," trembled with fear because of Lord's sovereignty, the Lord took Israel from the ends of the earth-first from Ur of the Chaldees in the case of Abraham and then from Egypt in the case of the nation. The Lord assures Israel that, as his servant, his choice of her is still current, that he has not "rejected" her.
In contrast to the nations, Israel is told not to fear and anxiously look about, because the Lord is with her and the Lord is her God. As opposed to the nations, which had to help each other to strengthen themselves, Israel will be helped and strengthened by the Lord. As a righteous king, he will uphold her with his righteous right hand, a symbol of his justice and power; he will vindicate her, as he vindicated his servant Moses and the Israelites who he liberated from Egypt. Verse 10, then, speaks of divine presence and divine aid. The Lord is present to help. The result, in verses 11 and 12, will be the vanquishing of Israel's enemies, the Gentile nations, particularly Babylon, Israel's captor. The nations, being angered at Israel, contend with her, quarrel with her and finally war with her, but their efforts will come to nothing. The Lord, who upholds Israel with his right hand, now upholds Israel's right hand; he gives Israel his power. It's foolish to war with the servant of the Lord.
We, as followers of Jesus, are servants of the Lord (Romans
1:1). We too have been chosen by him (1 Peter 2:9). The history
of God's choice of us can be traced all the way back to Abraham
and even to "before the foundation of the world" (Ephesians
1:4). In a sense, God has taken us from the ends of the earth,
from its remotest parts-from a spiritual Ur, a spiritual Egypt.
His choice of us, and his execution of that choice, demonstrate
that he will not reject us. The Lord is present with us to help
us. The biggest supposed threat to us is Satan, our adversary,
but Jesus has defeated him and will vanquish him (Ephesians 1:21,
Revelation 20:10). Unlike the idolaters, those of us who worship
the Lord do not need to fear or anxiously look about. We don't
have to worry about the unexpected invasions from the east, over
which the Lord, the righteous king, is sovereign. Jesus upholds
our hand with his righteous right hand. This imagery brings to
mind the time that Jesus entered the room of a girl who had died:
"And taking the child by the hand, he said to her, 'Talitha
kum!" (which translated means, 'Little girl, I say to you,
arise!')" (Mark 5:41). Jesus takes us by the hand as well,
upholding us when all seems lost.
The Lord now calls Israel a "worm," another term evoking weakness. Israel itself will feel humiliated, like a worm, in exile. Again, the Lord tells Israel not to fear, because he will help her. Whereas in the first image the Lord was Israel's righteous king, here he is her redeemer, the Holy One of Israel. A redeemer is one who comes to the aid of next-of-kin. Israel, which feels as if it's a worm, is nonetheless the next-of-kin of the Lord himself.
In this case, the Lord will help Israel by turning her into a well-equipped threshing sledge (new, sharp, double-edged) that is supernaturally effective. A threshing sledge was used to drag fields to chop straw in preparation for being separated from the grain by the winnowing process. The chopped straw, or chaff, and the grain would be tossed into the air with a winnowing fork, and the chaff would be blown away, leaving the grain. Israel, transformed from a worm into a threshing sledge by the Lord, will thresh not just fields but mountains, pulverizing them, and the hills will be like chaff-effects that could be achieved by no normal threshing sledge.
In Isaiah 40:3, a voice cried out that "every mountain and hill" would be "made low" in preparation for the return of the Lord and the people to Jerusalem. The mountains and hills in the imagery of Isaiah 41:15 stand once again for the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the way of exiled Israel, a "worm." Israel will be transformed and empowered by the Lord to overcome such obstacles. Such transformation and empowering is cause for rejoicing and glorying, or boasting, in the Lord.
Perhaps some of us have felt or currently feel like a worm-humiliated
and powerless. Do not fear! Jesus is our next-of-kin, our redeemer
(Hebrews 2:11-12, 9:12). He transforms us and empowers us by his
Holy Spirit, turning us into a new, sharp threshing sledge with
double edges, able to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles
(Romans 15:13, 19, Ephesians 3:16). Taking note of such transformation
and empowerment, we praise the Lord and give him the glory.
The final image in this trilogy, a desert wanderer, also evokes weakness. There is a progression in the intensity of weakness in each image, from servant to worm to desert wanderer. The wanderer, whose tongue is parched with thirst, is in more desperate shape, perhaps on the verge of dying, in need of water and shade. As so often in Isaiah, this picture evokes the exodus journey. Just as in the wilderness (Exodus 17:1-7), Israel is once again thirsty, this time metaphorically. The people felt abandoned by the Lord then, but just as he provided for them then, he promises, as the God of Israel, to provide for them now.
The Lord's promised provision of water in verse 18 will be even greater than what he did for Israel in the wilderness. He promises multiple rivers, springs and fountains to the extent that the wilderness becomes a pool of water. Also he will place countless trees in the wilderness to protect the Israelites from the sun.
The supernatural provision is designed so that the people may "see," "recognize," "consider" and "gain insight" into something. For different words are used to convey the exercise of perceptive faculties. The people are supposed to understand that "the hand of the Lord has done this, and the Holy One of Israel has created it." What the Lord will have done is created an entirely different kind of land, transforming an uninhabitable desert into a lush paradise. The description of the land is reminiscent of the garden in Eden (Genesis 2:8-14) and the promised land (Exodus 3:8). This imagery promises that the Lord will continue providing for Israel as its journey continues.
First the Lord was the righteous king who saves and vindicates his people. Then he was the redeemer who transformed and empowered his people. Now he is the creator who provides for his people.
In our journey through the wilderness, we thirst for spiritual water and need spiritual shade, a place to rest. Jesus said, "If any one is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scriptures said, 'From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water'" (John 7:37-38). He said, "Come to me all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you shall find rest for your souls" (Matthew 11:28-29). Is your tongue parched? Is there an inexplicable desire within you for which you can't find satisfaction? Come to Jesus! Is the sun beating down on you? Are you looking for a place of rest as you try to make your way through life? Come to Jesus! Come to Jesus, and you will find water and rest on your wilderness journey. He who created this world for us will provide for us and one day bring down for us a new and better creation flowing with milk and honey (Revelation 21:1-22:5).
The impotence of idolatry (41:21-29)
The final section returns us to the courtroom scene in which the Lord and the nations are coming together for judgment. When we left the story, the nations were preparing to present their case. Now the Lord invites them to bring forward their "strong" arguments, inasmuch as they strengthened themselves to do so (Isaiah 41:6-7). The Lord identifies himself as "the king of Jacob," appearing for the moment to be one king among many, putting himself on equal footing with his courtroom adversaries. In verse 22, the Lord invites the pagans to bring in their idols to see what they can do. The test concerns whether the idols can direct the course of history.
They are shown to be laughably impotent. Unable to predict the future, the idols are told to "do good or evil"-to do something, to do anything! Because of God's presence, Israel was not to "fear" or "anxiously look about" (verse 10). If the idols were able to do something, perhaps that might be cause to anxiously look about and fear, but their impotence shows the idolaters to be of no account, with their work, or idols, amounting to nothing. If one chooses such gods, he is an "abomination." Idols themselves are called an abomination (Deuteronomy 7:25-26). People become like what they worship (Psalm 115:8, Jeremiah 2:2).
In verse 25, the Lord reminds the pagans that he has "arisen one" to overthrow kingdoms. In verse 2 that one was seen as coming from the east; now he is seen as coming from both the north and the east ("the rising of the sun"). Cyrus would come from the east but invade from the north. Through questions and answers in verse 26, the Lord demonstrates that none of the idols can make a similar declaration as to the course of history. In verse 27, he says that he has already told the people of Israel (Zion, Jerusalem), "Behold, here they [coming events] are," and, "I will give a messenger of good news" about the overthrow of Babylon and the return of the exiles and the Lord to Jerusalem (Isaiah 40:9). In verse 28, finally and conclusively, the pagans have nothing to say. The Lord pronounces the idolaters "false" and their idols ("works" and "molten images") "worthless," "wind" and "emptiness."
The obvious problem with idolatry is that in the long run, it doesn't work. Idols are impotent. They do not do what we want them to do. In fear, we choose idols. But idolatry doesn't stop the fear, because we can't rid ourselves of another nagging fear that our idols are impotent. They can't interpret what has happened; they don't know what will happen. They are utterly incompetent to meet actual needs, and they don't help us when the invasions come. Perhaps you see the armies assembling on the horizon to the east, so to speak, and perhaps it's causing you to fear that what you trust in won't enable you to defend against it. Perhaps the invasion is under way, and you are now realizing the impotence of that what you have trusted in. Sooner or later, our idols come crashing to the earth, no matter how tightly we have fastened them. Either they come crashing down, or we pull them down ourselves. When the dust clears, we can see things more clearly. We can see the one who controls history.
Anne Lamott writes of ineffective efforts to avoid grief in her book Traveling Mercies. In essence, she's writing about how recognizing idolatry as impotent can lead us to something better: "Mostly I have tried to avoid it [grief] by staying very busy, working too hard, trying to achieve as much as possible. You can often avoid the pain by trying to fix other people; shopping helps in a pinch, as does romantic obsession. Martyrdom can't be beat. While too much exercise works for many people, it doesn't for me, but I have found that a stack of magazines can be numbing and even mood altering. But the bad news is that whatever you use to keep the pain at bay robs you of the flecks and nuggets of gold that feeling grief will give you. A fixation can keep you nicely defined and give you the illusion that your life has not fallen apart. But since your life may indeed have fallen apart, the illusion won't hold up forever, and if you are lucky and brave, you will be willing to bear disillusion. You begin to cry and writhe and yell and then to keep on crying; and then, finally, grief ends up giving you the best two things: softness and illumination."(1)
Move to the center
Not only by its content but also by its structure, Isaiah 41 demonstrates the difference between the Lord and the other gods and the difference between what the Lord does for his people and what the other gods do for their people. The outer edges of the chapter (41:1-7, 21-29) show that worshipping other gods is fear-based and gets you nothing. The center section (41:8-20) shows that worshipping the Lord takes away fear and gives you everything. The Lord acts on behalf of his people. In fact, he controls history for the benefit of his people. Are you fearful? Are you anxiously looking about? Perhaps you are trusting in gods that are impotent to meet needs or protect you. This chapter invites those of us who find ourselves in the outer edges of its structure to forsake our fear-based idolatry that gets us nothing and to move to the center, where the Lord offers us everything, and to join the servant, the worm and the wanderer, to be vindicated, empowered and satisfied.
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.
February 6, 2000
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