Words of love
If you love someone, how do you express that love to that person? The most obvious way is simply to tell that person. You use words to tell that person that you love him or her. If you're really serious, you write those words in a card and give it to that person. By writing, you're committing your words to record. If you're really serious and really inspired, you write a poem. Writing a poem connects with and conveys your deepest feelings.
In Isaiah 43, God writes you a poem. That means he's serious about you and that you inspire him. At the center of this poem, we find God's outrageous love for us that motivates outrageous actions. From the perspective of the poem, we find a love that accompanies us on all our journeys.
The inverted structure of the poem serves to feature the center ("C") stanza and to zero in on the center of that stanza (the "X" lines). The focus of the poem is the Lord's love for his people. The following is a structural outline of Isaiah 43:1-7, followed by a topical outline.
1 A But now, thus says the Lord, your Creator, O Jacob,
And He who formed you, O Israel,
"Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name; you are Mine!
2 B "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they will not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched,
Nor will the flame burn you.
3 "For I am the Lord your God,
The Holy One of Israel, your Savior;
C I have given Egypt as your ransom,
Cush and Seba in your place.
4 X "Since you are precious in My sight,
X Since you are honored and I love you,
I will give other men in your place
and other peoples in exchange for your life.
5 B' "Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
And gather you from the west.
6 "I will say to the north, 'Give them up!'
And to the south, 'Do not hold them back.'
Bring My sons from afar,
And My daughters from the ends of the earth,
7 A' Everyone who is called by My name,
And whom I have created for My glory,
Whom I have formed, even whom I have made."
A The Lord's ownership of his people for their redemption
B The Lord's presence to protect in judgment
C The Lord's love to act
B' The Lord's presence to gather for restoration
A' The Lord's ownership of his people for his glory
The outbound journey (43:1-3b)
The words "but now" signify contrast. After promising judgment (Isaiah 42:23-25), the Lord now "says" something else to his people in a decidedly different tone. The Lord's words of judgment are not his last words.
The Lord, earlier portrayed as the creator of the universe (Isaiah 41), is now portrayed as the creator of Israel. Language that was used to describe God's actions in creation in Genesis 1 and 2 are now used of the Lord's actions in the formation of Israel. The Lord has formed Israel as a people as he formed the first man (Genesis 2:7). As is common in the poetry of Isaiah, the people are collectively called Jacob, then Israel, thereby focusing on the Lord's call of the nation, represented in the new name (Genesis 32:27-28). The Lord's formation of Israel, particularly in the exodus from Egypt, provides the basis for what follows. The Lord will protect that which he has formed.
Then he tells Israel, "Do not fear." At first glance this may appear somewhat out of place, coming as it does on the heels of promised judgment that will send the people into exile. Israel, though, should not fear the Lord's judgment. In this case, the reason Israel shouldn't fear has to do with the Lord's prior redemption and calling of her that resulted in, and proves, her status as his people. The Lord, as Israel's redeemer, her next-of-kin, acted to save her from Egypt in order that he might enter into a covenant relationship with her. He called Israel by name, specifically and intimately, for his purposes. His primary purpose is that she might belong to him, for he says, "You are mine."
The Lord uses the images of water and fire to convey the coming judgment spoken of in Isaiah 42:23-25 (Psalm 32:6, Isaiah 42:25). Israel will pass through the waters and fires of judgment, so to speak, as she is taken away into captivity to Babylon. The use of both water and fire illustrates the completeness of judgment but more importantly that even in its completeness, there will be a limit to it. The waters will not overflow Israel; neither will the fire scorch her. The images also convey the general judgment ("waters," "fire") and the specific judgment that Israel thinks could damage her ("rivers," "the flame"). Israel will be judged but protected. Even in the execution of his judgment, the Lord says, "I will be with you."
Israel will be protected, and there is no need for her to fear, because she belongs to him ("you are mine"), as expressed in the way the Lord identifies himself in verse 3. He tells Israel that he is "your" God and "your" Savior. "The Lord your God" is the way the Lord referred to himself in the exodus (Exodus 3:15). As "the Holy One of Israel," he is both holy and relational, and his holiness is expressed in his relationship with Israel for her benefit.
A journey is pictured here. Israel will "pass through"
the rivers and "walk through" the fire. It's a journey
away from home, and it involves judgment, but the Lord will be
with her and protect her. But Israel has taken a trip before without
being overwhelmed or scorched. She passed through waters, quite
literally, on her way to the promised land. The "Lord your
God" was with her then. He is with her now.
As we in our sin distance ourselves from the Lord, we too walk through the waters and fires of judgment. Still, we have been formed by the Lord, and he will protect that which he has formed. The Lord's redemption and calling of you through the blood of Jesus Christ established and proves your status as his child. Jesus, your next-of-kin, acted to redeem you. The Lord has called you by name-specifically and intimately-that you might know him. He tells you, "You are mine."
Water and fire are fearsome entities to walk through. They are notoriously uncontrollable. When nature gets its dander up, no dam or fire line can stop it. It seems that what we have to walk through in life will overwhelm us or scorch us. The water is raging, and surely one of its rivers will engulf us. The fire is raging, and surely one of its flames will burn us.
Yet the Lord sets limits for the waters and fires. When you pass through the waters and fires of judgment, you still belong to him. He is still with you. He is the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. He is speaking to you over the sounds of the crackling flames and rushing rivers. He's saying, "You are mine!" You've taken these trips before. The Lord was with you then; he's with you now. Therefore, do not fear.
The heart of love (43:3c-4)
This stanza features six lines that break down into three couplets. The first and third couplets treat the same theme-the price the Lord pays to redeem his people, forming the final arrows that point to the absolute center of the poem, a couplet in which the Lord expresses his love for his people:
"I have given Egypt as your ransom,
Cush and Seba in your place.
Since you are precious in my sight,
Since you are honored and I love you,
I will give other men in your place.
And other peoples in exchange for your life."
The price of Israel's redemption from Egypt is Egypt, which includes Cush and Seba. The 10th plague that finally convinced Pharaoh to release Israel killed all the first-born of Egypt. The angel of death passed over the houses of Israel. The Lord also promises future redemption as well, with the price being the death of other peoples. How are we to understand the Lord's killing people of one nation to redeem people from another? When the Lord redeemed Israel, he was also judging Egypt, a pagan nation. The other peoples he would give in exchange for Israel would also be experiencing the Lord's judgment. The Lord waited before leading Israel to conquer the peoples of Canaan until their iniquity was "complete" (Genesis 15:16). The price the Lord is willing to pay-the death of other peoples-shows forth the value of those he redeems.
At the center of the poem, God expresses something from the
center of his heart. Why has the Lord redeemed Israel, and why
will he redeem Israel? Because she is precious in his sight, because
she is honored, because he loves her.
As we take in the whole of biblical revelation, we understand that the Lord's payment expressed in the death of Egypt and other nations isn't payment enough. Sin costs more than that, and we're worth more than that. Sin costs God his Son, and that's what we're worth. His formation of us in redemption established and confirms our value. His work in redemption can only be explained by his love for us.
The Lord uses some choice words to express his feelings for
us-words such as "precious" and "honored"
and "love." The Lord used the word translated "precious"
in Isaiah 28:16 (there translated "costly") of the cornerstone
he will lay in Zion. That cornerstone turns out to be Christ (1
Peter 2:6). Just as the Lord considers Christ precious, he considers
us precious. We are precious in his sight. God sees everything;
he sees everything about you. His assessment, after his all-perceiving
eyes have seen everything there is to see about you, is that you
are precious. In God's estimation, the only one that really counts,
you are of inestimable value. You are not simply a lump of flesh
or a collection of molecules; you are precious. We are also honored
by God. To be honored is to be recognized favorably, to be praised.
Every child wants to be honored by his parents. That is why children,
before performing some new trick that they've learned, first get
their parents' attention and say, "Watch this." They
want to be honored. We want to be honored. The Lord, your heavenly
Father, honors you, he recognizes you favorably, he praises you.
He also speaks to you those three words you most want to hear,
"I love you."
You make yourself very vulnerable when you use such words. Many parents never work up the courage to tell their children that they love them. You will hear many adult children say something like, "My father never told me he loved me; he showed me his love through actions." If you really love someone, why is it so hard to tell that person? Because you're afraid that person won't love you back. In saying "I love you," you open up your heart and risk rejection. The Lord becomes vulnerable, he opens up his heart, he risks rejection to tell you that he loves you. Not only do you make yourself vulnerable when you say "I love you" to someone, you also commit yourself to that person, and you know commitment can be costly. It was for God. It cost him his Son.
Each of us wants love more desperately than anything else, but each of us is afraid we won't get it. We are afraid that there is something in us that makes us unlovable. If there's anything that's bound to make us feel unlovable, it's God's judgment for our sin. But here, in the midst of his judgment, he tells us that he loves us. His judgment, then, must be an expression of his love. If he didn't judge the sin, he would not be loving us. When we feel most unworthy of love, God tells us that he loves us. He does that so that we will know, really know, that he loves us.
Note that the Lord's stunning assessment of us as precious, honored and loved is not the result of his actions; it is the motivation for his actions. Because you are precious in his sight, because you are honored by him, because he loves you, he acts; he lets go of his Son. The Lord's outrageous love for you calls forth his outrageous actions.
We long for someone to speak the words of verse 4 to us. We want to be precious in someone's sight. We want someone to honor us. We want someone to love us. The ears of our hearts want to hear these words more than any others. Through the scriptures and the ministry of the Holy Spirit, these words are being spoken to you right now. And remember who it is who's speaking. This is your Creator, the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. Listen carefully and imaginatively to what he says to you, for these words can change your life: "You are precious in my sight. You are honored. I love you."
At the heart of the poem, we find God's heart. At the heart of God's heart what do we find? We find ourselves. We find God's love for us. We were made in God's love and redeemed in God's love that we might receive God's love and know that we are loved.
Mike Yaconelli, co-founder of Youth Specialties, writes of a time when he finally heard God's words of love:
God had been trying to shout over the noisiness of my life, and I couldn't hear him. But in the stillness and solitude, his whispers shouted from my soul, "Michael, I am here. I have been calling you, but you haven't been listening. Can you hear me, Michael? I love you. I have always loved you. And I have been waiting for you to hear me say that to you. But you have been so busy trying to prove to yourself you are loved that you have not heard me."
I heard him, and my slumbering soul was filled with the joy of the prodigal son. My soul was awakened by a loving Father who had been looking and waiting for me. Finally, I accepted my brokenness I had never come to terms with that. Let me explain. I knew I was broken. I knew I was a sinner. I knew I continually disappointed God, but I could never accept that part of me. It was a part of me that embarrassed me. I continually felt the need to apologize, to run from my weaknesses, to deny who I was and concentrate on what I should be. I was broken, yes, but I was continually trying never to be broken again-or at least to get to the place where I was very seldom broken .
I can only tell you that it feels very different now. There is an anticipation, an electricity about God's presence in my life that I have never experienced before. I can only tell you that for the first time in my life I can hear Jesus whisper to me every day, "Michael, I love you. You are beloved." And for some strange reason, that seems to be enough.
The homeward journey (43:5-7)
Just as he did in verse 1, the Lord says, "Do not fear." Also as in the first section, the Lord's presence ("I am with you") is a reason not to fear. Once again, the Lord's judgment as expressed in the exile is not something to fear, inasmuch as he will be actively present throughout. In the first section, the Lord said he would be with them in the outbound journey of judgment. Now, he promises he will be with them to bring them home. He will gather the offspring of Israel-literally, her "seed"-from all directions and bring them home to Jerusalem.
The north and south compass points stand as metaphors for that which somehow keeps God's people from returning home. Just as he commanded Pharaoh in the first exodus (Exodus 5:1), the Lord will command the north and south to release his people-his sons and daughters. The Lord, who says "give them back" and "do not hold them back," is the only one who can do so with effect (Isaiah 42:22). The compass points will be told not only to release the people but to "bring" them from "afar," from "the ends of the earth," the far places where the Lord called Israel from in the first place (Isaiah 41:9).
The sons and daughters who return comprise "everyone" who is called by the name of the Lord. Although Israel, God's people as a whole, is in view in this poem, every one of God's people is also in view. No one is left out. Whereas the Lord has called Israel "by name" (verse 1), he has called the individuals "by my name." Each is part of the Lord's family as his son or daughter.
Creation language resurfaces in verse 7 and is now applied to individuals, not just Israel as a whole. Whereas the Lord was seen as the creator of Israel and the one who formed her (verse 1), he now says he has "created" and "formed" each of his people for his glory, that they may display his greatness (Isaiah 43:21). The Lord's greatness is displayed through the people he creates and redeems (Isaiah 44:23).
The Lord here is speaking here not just of return from Babylonian captivity but of a greater and grander return from exile, inasmuch as the people will not only return from Babylon but from all points of the compass. This return from exile involves all people who have been taken captive by sin, who live in exile from him, not just those of ethnic Israel. The "seed" of Israel comprises all those who are in Christ (Galatians 2:29). Jesus, probably with Isaiah 43:5-6 in mind, said, "And they will come from east and west, and from north and south, and will recline at table in the kingdom of God" (Luke 13:30). Those of us who are followers of Jesus are the ones who feast with him; we are the seed of Israel, the sons and daughters of the Lord.
Just as the Lord is with us in the outbound journey of judgment, he is with us in the homeward journey of restoration. The Lord knows that we're afraid that there is no way that we can really return to him. We're afraid that our sin is too great, that we are too ensnared by the concerns of this world, that we're too apathetic-that we are, in a sense, dwelling at "the ends of the earth," far from the Lord. We're afraid that there is no one to say, "Give him back," no one to say, "Give her back." But the Lord tells us, "Do not fear, for I am with you." He brings us back from the east. He gathers us from the west. He says to the north and south, the sin and the snares and the apathy, and finally to the evil one himself, "Give them up! Do not hold them back!"
No one else can say this, but the Lord can. Why? Because we belong to him. We don't belong to our sin, our snares, our apathy-we don't belong to Satan. We are sons and daughters of the living God, called by his name and no one else's. When the Lord commands Satan to give us up, he commands him to give up that which doesn't belong to him. The Lord has created and formed each of us for his glory-not the glory of sin or Satan. So he brings us back to himself and thereby displays his greatness through us. And we become witnesses of his power and grace.
Some of you, having passed through the waters and fires of judgment, need to make a journey today. You're living far from the Lord. You need to return from the ends of the earth. You need to come home. You're afraid, but you need to know that the Lord is with you. The prodigal son was afraid, too, but his father embraced him when he returned (Luke 15:11-24). He returned to a father who was overflowing with love. Do you wonder whether the Father loves you, whether he really will accept you if you return? "Since you are precious in my sight, since you are honored and I love you, I will give other men in your place and other peoples in exchange for your life." In other words, he will give you his Son.
The Lord promises to be with us, and to love us, in all our journeys. "The Lord will guard your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forever" (Psalm 121:8). In Isaiah 43, he writes us a poem-a love poem-to tell us so.
(1) Mike Yaconelli, The Back Door. Quoted by Brennan Manning, Abba's Child (Colorado Springs, Col.: Navpress), 1994.
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.
March 5, 2000
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