21. He is there for us

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.21. He is there for us

Isa 40:28 “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.”

In the previous study we acknowledged that this ‘desert experience’ is a more common experience that many of us realise. In our ‘desert place’ we often lose focus or lose perspective and find ourselves coming out with things which, on a good day, we know are not true, we make excuses for silly things we say or do and we tend to grumble as we let the enemy push us around. Isaiah’s prophecy comes to help us as it confronts the reality of our situation but cries out that the Lord is coming to transform it.  Never forget that! It is to counter the silly things that the enemy says to us in such times, that the word now comes, words like, “God is too busy, God needs a rest with all He has to do, God can’t be here for you at the moment.” Silly words, all untruths.

Verse 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.” So, the unthinking and worn down might think that God is too tired or too busy to bother with them, that He has got caught up in His own affairs and forgotten them, but none of that is true. Why should the Creator of the world, the all-powerful, all-knowing and all-wise one be like that? You may not be able to understand His actions or His apparent inaction, but you have nothing to worry about on that score!

Verse 29: “He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.” This almighty all-powerful God never runs out of energy and because He is love (1 Jn 4:8,16), He delights in sharing His resources with His people.  Thus when He sees our weariness and sense of weakness, He just waits to hear from us, His children turning to their Father, to give them the strength they need, the power to lift them up. It is a common need:

Verse 30: “Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall;” It doesn’t matter who we are, young or old, our human frailty and weakness shines through on a regular basis, our resources run low, we get run down, we feel jaded and weak and become vulnerable to the lies of the enemy and his insidious suggestions, “I should just give it all up if I were you. End it all now.” No, the wise simply turn to their loving heavenly Father and receive from Him:

Verse 31a: “but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.” The word ‘hope’ here can be confusing. It means to rely upon, to put your trust in, and in practical terms, wait upon, which is why a number of versions have, they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.” (ESV, NKJ etc) These other versions focus on the act while the NIV focuses on the reason. When we truly put our hope in the Lord we will make time to wait upon Him until He comes and makes His presence known. That is the link with earlier in the chapter, the glory of the Lord will be revealed,” (v.5) “Here is your God!”
See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power.”

Trust & reliance: When we wait upon Him, when we put our hope in Him alone, then He will come, bringing His power into our lives in a fresh way. No wonder Jeremiah chided God’s people: My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Jer 2:13) Instead of relying on the spring of living water, the Lord, they had tried their own methods of providing resources, (today we do it by our self-help courses) and found that didn’t work.  There is a link here with the earlier instructions, prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God,” (v.3) i.e. you take steps for the Lord to be able to come to you: Come near to God and he will come near to you.” (Jas 4:8). It calls for heart change and then life action.

And then there is the outworking of all this, but instead of rushing through it, we will leave it to the last study in this mini-series.

20. Excuses and Grumbles

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.20. Excuses & Grumbles

Isa 40:27   Why do you say, Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord

To catch the full sense of this remaining section in this chapter, we have to remind ourselves of the beginning of the chapter, a call to comfort Israel. Now whether this chapter is to apply to the Exile in the years ahead, or to some other time when Israel was being disciplined by the Lord for their unfaithfulness, the truth is that in such times Israel would be feeling down and defeated.

We too, when we are going through times of disciplining (see Heb 12:5-8) go through a time before it comes to an end and we are lifted up, of feeling like this.  We’ve been over this ground before, but we have to face it if we are to come into a place of freedom and security. Honesty is required. It goes back to the idea of the desert, a time when we feel we are in a dry and arid place, a place that seems static and unfruitful and (and this is the most important thing) the Lord seems absent. If you have never known a time when the Lord seems distant, it either means you live in unreality or you have never learnt to sense His presence and thus the horror of when that presence does not seem to be there. Of course, the reality is that it is not that He has moved, and we are alone, it is that in our thinking, somehow or other we have got into this ‘desert’ mentality.

Now that is not the thing Isaiah is complaining about, it is the silly things we find ourselves saying when we do feel in that desert place. Do you remember how we thought about faithfulness and how it can flag under pressure?  In those times, as with Jesus, the enemy wanders up and starts making insinuations like, “If you were really a child of God you wouldn’t be feeling like this,” or, “This is obviously an indication that God doesn’t love you, that He could leave you like this,” or, “Well God is obviously busy with important people and you just aren’t on his radar.”  So common and so untrue. So Israel need comforting, and part of that is gentle chiding, “Hey guys, whatever are you thinking, saying that God has given up on you and doesn’t see what you are going through and doesn’t know how you are feeling?”

It is for this reason the prophecy now moves in this direction: Verse 27: Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God”? They feel away from the Lord. They have suffered correction and so often that meant an enemy prevailing over them and they felt the Lord was far away. In such times we forget that the Lord said, Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Heb 13:5 quoting Deut 31:6). The truth is that He has not left us, but it does tend to feel like that when we focus on the pressures upon us. Jesus expressed the same thing when the weight of the world’s sin covered him on the cross, and he lost the sense of the Father’s presence (which was still there – love never abandons!) and cried out, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46) It is a more common experience that many of us realize. So he continues:

Verse 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.” The unthinking and superstitious might think that God is too tired or too busy to bother with them, that He has got caught up in His own affairs and forgotten them, but none of that is true. Why should the Creator of the world, the all-powerful, all-knowing and all-wise one be like that?

You may not be able to understand His actions or His apparent inaction, but you have nothing to worry about on that score! That latter part of verse 28 really impinges on our thinking so often at such times: why is God allowing this to happen, why doesn’t He do something? That was the cry of Habakkuk (see Hab 1) and it is the cry of so many of us, and each time we have to come to a fresh realization that God’s sovereignty is underpinned by His wisdom and His love for us, and so often He steps back, so to speak, and allows the folly of the world to be revealed and thus our need for His salvation. But He never ceases to be personally concerned for us.

He will go on to explain how this works, but it is important that we face this experience within the Christian life. Before you became a Christian God seemed a million miles away, but when you became a Christian you didn’t expect that there would seem to be times when that felt like that again. Sometimes life feels a real battle (and Eph 6 suggests that it is!); it is just how it is, living in a fallen world with a real enemy, with things still in existence that Jesus considers enemies, as we’ve considered before, sin, sickness and so on. Having to live in this world and under this pressure is a temporary thing, but when we do experience it, remember the main truths about it: He has not left you, He is there for you, and this time will pass away. Just hang in there, let God’s word strengthen you to enable you to remain faithful throughout. Amen? Amen!

19. The Creator

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.19. The Creator

Isa 40:25  “To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.”

In the previous study we said that there is a rhythm in this chapter that is almost like the waves rippling in on the seashore, repeating again and again the things being said. Twice we have now considered the nations and mighty rulers who are almost insignificant in comparison to the Lord’s greatness, the prophet now returns to the subject of the Lord’s greatness.

Verse 25: Then the next ripple on the seashore comes in: “To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.” We saw it in verse 18: With whom, then, will you compare God?” and we’ll see it later in 46:5, “With whom will you compare me or count me equal? To whom will you liken me that we may be compared?”

The same question keeps coming. Stop and think about God. For Israel it was, with what you know about the Lord from your history with Him and the revelation that came through Moses, together with the stories passed down through history, who could you possibly put up in comparison to this One.

For us today, let’s think in general philosophical terms, if we define ‘God’ as the ultimate Supreme Being of whom we can think of nothing bigger and greater, the thought of comparisons are pure nonsense. You either believe such a one exists (and then have to turn to the revelation of the Bible for ‘content’) or that such a one doesn’t exist (and then have to try and explain the Bible away which, when you know what it in it and how it came to be there, is an incredibly difficult task.)

By definition, God is the greatest, the ultimate and He either is, or isn’t. I would always argue most strongly that the evidence is so great that there is no question.  Others, perhaps not having researched the evidence, simply look at the weaknesses or failures of the extremes of Christianity and argue against His existence. I think it was Blaise Pascal who said, “Belief is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists.” i.e. if there is any doubt you would be wiser to opt for than against a mighty God you might have to face one day!

But the big question Isaiah puts up at God’s leading, is to whom can you possibly compare this Almighty Being?  If He doesn’t exist, there is no other option to put forward to make sense of existence. If He does exist, by definition there cannot be two equally such powerful Beings or even other lessor beings. (you need to think about that.) One ‘God’ and no competitors.

Verse 26: Finally he goes back to the fact of creation: Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.” Existence is a mystery as I alluded to in a previous study. We take for granted the night-time sky for instance, the fact that although, from our perspective, it appears to move, the reality is that none of the stars disappear. Our moon remains constant, our sun remains constant, and both have been referred to throughout history. Why are they still there? Don’t say ‘gravimetric pulls’ for that just explains what it is there, not why it should continue. To suggest it is all pure chance or even the result of a ‘big bang’ tells us nothing, and yet everything in us denies an utterly meaningless world. Many people spend much of their lives making meaning and purpose; they are called artists, writers, composers, philosophers, scientists etc. Entire lives are given over to trying to make sense of existence, of finding meaning in the cosmos, but it is here with God.

The word from God comes, they are here because I made them. The apostle Paul concurs: what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Rom 1:19,20) The Message version puts it so well: “the basic reality of God is plain enough. Open your eyes and there it is! By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being. So nobody has a good excuse.” The message of these verses in Isaiah are clear: There is no one to compare with the Creator. Think about alternatives for as long as you like but you won’t find one other by definition as the philosophers say, or by revelation as the theologians and apologists say.  Enough said! Amen.

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord, I worship you alone. You alone are God, you are God alone, the only one worthy of my worship.

18. Mover of People

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.18. Mover of People

Isa 40:23,24  He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing. No sooner are they planted, no sooner are they sown, no sooner do they take root in the ground, than he blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.

Just to remind ourselves, in the second half of Isaiah 40, Isaiah focuses us on the Lord, seeking to enable us to realise just who it is who is coming to Israel, and in so doing he reminds them of their inheritance, of what they have been taught. Previously we saw the Lord being compared to idols, but already he had asked who else was there like the Lord with His unlimited knowledge and power (v.12-14), one so great that He made nations and lands appear almost insignificant (v.15-17). It was only then that the subject of idols had been raised (v.18-20) and then swiftly demolished as a competitor to the Lord who is the great Creator above all things (v.21,22).

There is a rhythm in this chapter that is almost like the waves rippling in on the seashore, repeating again and again the things being said. Having said the nations and lands are almost insignificant in comparison to the Lord’s greatness, the prophet now returns to that subject (v.23,24) and then again to the Lord’s greatness.

Verse 23: He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.” Here is a general statement of His power and His actions in respect of leaders, rulers of this world. It is a simple statement and a challenging one. We look at the leaders of the world and think how mighty and how powerful they are. In these days of twenty-four-hour news channels we are bombarded with news which is so often filled with the goings on of the leaders of nations, whether America, China, Russia, Iran, or Korea, often hearing their rantings and threats and, let’s be honest, it is sometimes scary! The great temptation is to think they will always be here, it will always be like this and Isaiah puts us right.

It is interesting to think back over the last century and recall names that are drifting out of our memories, names like Idi Amin, Fidel Castro, Fransisco Franco, Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Benito Mussolini, Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, Marshall Joseph Tito, Mao Zedong, and there are a lot more, but the truth is we probably struggle to imagine or remember these dictators who are now dead and buried and whose evil deeds have been washed away by the passing of years. At the time they were terrors and all caused the deaths of others, often many, many others – but they are now gone and almost forgotten!

If we elevate powerful men (and it is mostly men) we forget the lessons of the Bible. Nebuchadnezzar is a great example of this (see Daniel 4 in its entirety), a king whose name brought fear so great was his power. Yet this great king was brought to nothing and then later restored. The Lord spoke a word, and it was done! Again look at these great world leaders, strutting around in their corridors of power, often abusing their power and lining their pockets and filling their bank balances, shouting off words to the rest of the world – unrighteousness incarnate! Read again the word of the Lord.

Verse 24: If you have not taken that in fully, listen to the picture language the prophet now uses: “No sooner are they planted, no sooner are they sown, no sooner do they take root in the ground, than he blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.”  We see such men as immovable blocks of stone who blight our present landscape and cause us to worry in the early hours. From where we stand they are great and powerful and they use their power to generate fear as they appear invincible, but Isaiah challenges our limited vision.

Isaiah likens these people to seed. They are sown, they germinate and take root. Yes, we see them on our TV screens and we observe their powerful positions, they are definitely features on our landscape and we tremble, if not literally in our thinking. And then the Lord blasts them with either heat or wind and they are swept away.

Look back at the history of the last hundred years and see how many times this has happened. Powerful despots, wielding fear, causing deaths of hundreds, thousands and even millions, but where are they now? Gone! Often prematurely. Once they looked invincible and we all trembled and then came their downfall.

The message of these two verses: The Lord is all powerful and reigns over all of mankind. Perhaps even reading the descriptions above, you wonder why the Lord allows even these terrible things at the hands of such men? There are two sides to that answer. One is earthly and to do with judgment, and the other eternal, to do with a fuller perspective of existence way beyond the ‘three score and ten years’ on this earth. For such answers we have to change to the ‘big-picture mode’. For now we simply observe these ones we thought were permanent features on our landscape and now gone – and God is still here. One day in heaven, if the Lord should allow us to see the full details of His activity in history, we may find ourselves gasping at the scope of His activity in bringing these people to an end as perhaps He says, “Enough, thus far and no further. Cease.”  And they wither and are swept away. Let’s make sure we hold a right perspective every time we turn on the news!

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord, please help me retain a right perspective when I watch the news, help me to remember who you are and what you do.

17. Comparisons

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.17.  Comparisons

Isa 40:21    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?

We have been considering a fact of life in the times of Old Testament Israel, that of idol worship.  From our perspective it may simply be a view of a superstitious nation and yet superstition holds a very strong position in the lives of godless people. But it is there, and Isaiah has been making Israel look at the stark realities of these idols, pieces of wood or cast metal made by men. Dressed up by gold or silver coverings to make them appear more impressive, but never-the-less still just man-made objects. That is the truth.

Verses 21: Back to God:  This links back to verse 18 – “With whom will you compare God?” So he continues, “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?” (v.21)  The Message version puts this well: Have you not been paying attention? Have you not been listening? Haven’t you heard these stories all your life?”  This is a people who have been taught about God. Public teaching has long been a feature of the life of Israel. So he says, come on, you know all about this, Moses told it to you, he told you (Genesis) all about this world being created by a Creator, our God! It is all part of our history and it makes sense; you know all about it! God is Creator!

An aside: I cannot help mentioning this every time this subject comes up. We have come to a fascinating time in history where scientists and scientific philosophers (and philosophy has become an important part of scientific theory) say the universe is expanding and therefore extrapolating back there must have been a time of some ‘beginning’, in their words, ‘a Big Bang’ but that gives no answer because the one thing we all believe is that something cannot come from absolutely nothing (“nothing nothing” as Francis Schaeffer used to say) so what was before whatever went ‘bang’?

Verse 22: Creator: No, he implies, you’ve been taught all this, you know there is a Creator, our God. He continues with a picturesque image of God: “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.” (v.22) Look, he is saying, God is greater than this earth, He is above it, if you like, and therefore when you compare Him to all of humanity, we are like small insects, grasshoppers if you really want to put us in perspective, hopping around insignificantly in the bigger scheme of things. God is the one who created whatever is ‘up there’, the heavens, and for Him it’s like He stretches them out like putting up a tent. (Stop and think about that – a tent is just a small thing set up in a bigger world! Think big, think God!)

And so? So set these two sets of ideas next to each other, the things about idols (v.18-20) and now the Creator God (v.22 onwards).  There on the mantlepiece or the shelf or the window sill is this little idol, made of wood or metal, sometimes dressed up with a covering of gold or silver, but nevertheless a manufactured article. (Today imported in crates by the thousand from abroad, made with cheap labour!) And then, there is God, boundless, limitless, eternal, not created but The Creator, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise. Which one of these two deserves worship? The idol? You’ve got to be joking.

In the previous study we disposed of idols, both in Isaiah’s day and in our own. We don’t realise their futility, their helplessness to help us, until suddenly our lives are threatened. Today, in the West at least, we are doing a good job at preserving life and yet, I have observed, that for many as they pass their sixties, the quality of life is not so wonderful, and I have wondered about this prolonging of life without great quality.  Is it God’s way of giving us more thinking time, time to come to our senses and realise that we have been trusting idols, trusting ‘God-substitutes’?   Will some face God after death and be silent when He says, “I gave to thirty more years than your ancestors to think about these things and still you didn’t come to your senses”?

This thing about comparisons between God-substitutes and God Himself is very real. Don’t read these verses in Isaiah 40 casually and treat the subject lightly. It is perhaps the greatest deception of twenty-first century mankind. We have never been so affluent, never so well off, never had such help from technology, never been so secure and, therefore, there has never been such a temptation to allow the ‘God-substitutes’ of today to blind us to His reality. The things that are intended to bless us become the things that lock us into godlessness and seal our fate. But it is never too late to face these things and it is better to face it before old age or serious illness come. Some today may say, “But I didn’t know,” but the truth is that the Bible is still the world’s best seller and still available to most of the world, a book that begins, “In the beginning God created….”  No excuses.

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord, I bow before you as Creator of all things, the Lord God Almighty, lord of heaven and earth, and I worship you.

16. Idols?

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.16.  Idols? You have to be joking!

Isa 40:18    With whom, then, will you compare God? To what image will you liken him?

The subject of idols crops up again and again in the Old Testament. They make us realise that superstition is there lurking in the background of humanity. Solomon wrote of God, He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart,” (Eccles 3:11) yet in a fallen world, that inner searching for something more gets twisted into superstition which was seen again and again in the false religions of the nations that surrounded Israel, and then which found its way into their consciousness and lives. Thus, near the beginning of the book, Isaiah declared, “Their land is full of idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their fingers have made.” (Isa 2:8) Idols (or images) were the tangible expression of idolatry – the worship of idols. The word ‘idols’ occurs 20 times in Isaiah and ‘idol’ 28 times. Now we have moved into this more positive phase of the book, it is used in a derisory manner as the prophet exalts the Lord.

The purpose of verses 18 to 20 might be summarized as ‘don’t compare Him to idols’ and then verses 21 & 22 exalt the Lord, showing how He is so different.

Verse 18: No Comparison! “With whom, then, will you compare God? To what image will you liken him?”  Hey people, Isaiah challenges the people, stop and think about this. Stop and think about what you know about God, and then look at these idols you have around you. Come on now, look at these idols you have, think about how they are made and then stop and think about the Lord. Really, there is no comparison is there!

Verse 19: Idol manufacture: “As for an idol, a metalworker casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and fashions silver chains for it.”  Be honest, you know how an idol is made. You only have to go along to a goldsmith’s workshop and you see how an idol, either wood or cast in metal is made and then overlaid with gold and has silver chains attached to it. Were such chains used to help it down in place in the home, so it couldn’t be easily removed? We don’t know, but the point is that this idol is made by other people.

Verse 20: The process: “A person too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot; they look for a skilled worker to set up an idol that will not topple.”  Look, he continues, even the very poor who may not be able to afford an image covered in gold or silver, has an idol. Their idol is very basic. They look around for some hardwood that will last and they find someone who can work with wood to shape it and create a basic image for them, something that will last, be stable and not keep falling over. They actually put effort into all these considerations, but they are still very obvious objects, things you can see and things you know exactly how they came about.

This is what Isaiah is pressing in on, the ordinariness of these objects, objects that are man-made and which, therefore, have no life, no power, or ability to change circumstances, change the world. We would never believe such foolish things and yet there are things in twenty-first Western life that may not have the same appearance but to which we give the same credibility. What are the things that we rely upon, what are the things that the world uses as a substitute for God, things we believe can help us survive, things we must hold on to and view as precious, not to be let go of?

A point to ponder. Of what in our lives do we give greater importance than the Lord? Comfort? Pleasure? Success? Appearance? Modern technology? Work? Leisure? These are the modern ‘idols’ that many place first in their lives. These deceive us because there appears no similarity to the things we see ‘pagan peoples’ worship, and we consider ourselves so much more sophisticated, but they are still things that modern Western man puts in front of God. They can be very simple, for even just a person we can exalt and put before God. If we honour and exalt such a figure that they blank out God, they become an idol. I won’t bother to dignify some more scientific atheists by naming them, but they are idols in the minds of some in their ‘followers’.

The worship of ‘self’ or of ‘me’ is an idol, something that replaces God and which we esteem above anything else. Watch the way some journalistic columnists write, above contradiction, claiming the high ground, beyond question, elevating themselves to the position of little gods. Listen to some politicians and you find the same thing.

Now do the same comparison exercise that Isaiah has just done. Does it make sense to make appearance or personal success or pleasure & leisure – or people – the  governing feature of our lives when there is the Lord, the almighty One, standing there with open arms calling us into real relationship? A last thought. You could easily take one of the idols that Isaiah has been talking about and destroy it. What effect would it have had? None, except in the mind of the superstitious idol-worshipper. Now to do a modern comparison, it is probably easier to imagine you are separated off from these possible ‘idols’ we have been thinking about.  Imagine you contract a fatal illness. Suddenly all these things we have listed above become worthless. Success becomes meaningless. Materialism becomes meaningless. Pleasure becomes meaningless. Celebrities and atheistic scientists and politicians become meaningless. The only thing of meaning before you, is life. The threat of its removal suddenly puts everything else in perspective. No our idols may not sit on a shelf, but they are just as insidious if they become substitutes for God – until our life is seriously under threat and then we start thinking sensibly.

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord, please forgive me if I put things or people before you. Please draw my heart. I purpose to make you first before all else.


15. Don’t look to the world

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.15. Don’t look to the world

Isa 40:15    Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales; he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust.

Context: We often say, check the context, and this seems doubly so in Isa 40 for it is a rolling prophecy and it is all pointing the same direction. It comes, as we’ve seen, as a word from the Lord through Isaiah to Israel, specifically to Jerusalem (v.2) and specifically to the southern kingdom, Judah (v.9). It is a word of comfort (v.1), a word that says God is coming (v.5,9) and will be revealed, a word that reassures that He comes as a caring shepherd and they are His sheep (v.11). That was the thrust of the first part, and the second part is all about who the Lord is, and we have just seen His greatness as the unique being who is all-powerful and all-knowing. The objective of this second part is to emphasis his uniqueness and now the prophet, in a rather cut and dried manner, puts the peoples of the world in right perspective compared to Him.

Psalm 2: We also see this in psalm 2: The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.” (Psa 2:2-4) The psalmist paints the picture of godless humanity plotting together to throw off the shackles of God’s love and the Lord just laughs at our folly. The New Testament revelation of God seen through Jesus Christ, slightly tempers whatever we might think of the word ‘derision’ for it does have a hard sound to it, but that is the truth of what God (and Justice) thinks about rebellious mankind in their rebellion.  Yet it is always undergirded by His love that is there for whoever will receive it.  The ‘derision’ is about the ungodly attitude and verses 15 to 17 here in Isaiah may be summed up as ‘The nations are as nothing before Him.’ Let’s consider them in more detail.

Verse 15a: “Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket.”  Our problem is that we lose perspective.  If you are a film-watcher you may have seen Roman or Greek epics (or even the Lord of the Rings) and seen vast armies that fill the landscape and may think, ‘Aren’t nations powerful!’  A little digging in history shows that peoples come, and peoples go. Great names today will be gone tomorrow. A great empire today will be gone tomorrow, and the folly of dictators is to believe they are so great, and yet every great name from the past is now dust (unless they were embalmed and are now in a museum, which isn’t much better).  The nations of the world, when seen in true perspective are really just like a drop in the bucket of history, so small, so insignificant. And if you compare them to Almighty God who fills all of existence, you have to really peer intently at the bottom of the bucket of all of existence to even find any nation known to us. Now this is really going to become meaningful when you consider godless nations in Israel’s history who rose up against Israel and therefore against God. A no-contest!

Verse 15b: He continues, “they are regarded as dust on the scales; he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust.” So often when prophecy speaks of ‘the islands’ there is being conveyed the sense of small people groupings. Britain is an island, Australia and New Zealand are islands and there are many other islands, big and small in between. But instead of greatness (as godless man thinks of his nation) nations and islands are actually so small that they are rather like dust being weighed on very fine scales, so small, so light, they have to have special scales to measure them. That is how they are in comparison to Almighty God! The Message version has a quaint way of putting these verses: Why, the nations are but a drop in a bucket, a mere smudge on a window. Watch him sweep up the islands like so much dust off the floor!”  I like it!

Verse 16: Lebanon is not sufficient for altar fires, nor its animals enough for burnt offerings.From our perspective as we travel by car or even air, great forests seem amazing. I have flown over Borneo and marvelled at the scenery below me, I have seen aerial film of the Amazon rain forest (as diminishing as it is) and such massive swathes of trees are awesome.  Lebanon was known for its massive cedars and so there was a land covered with forests of these massive trees, and the temptation is to think of how great they are but, as the Message version again puts it, There aren’t enough trees in Lebanon nor enough animals in those vast forests to furnish adequate fuel and offerings for his worship.”  i.e. if you wanted to worship God in the Old Testament style with a sacrifice on an altar fire – if you really wanted to worship God as He is truly worth worshipping – there just isn’t enough wood or enough animals to do it properly. That is what Isaiah is saying here.

Verse 17: Before him all the nations are as nothing; they are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing” I really think Eugene Peterson hit top form in the Message, here in these verses: All the nations add up to simply nothing before him –  less than nothing is more like it. A minus. Another way we might say it is, “God is not impressed by the size and strength of nations on this tiny planet and in terms of value, nations are virtually meaningless, they are just the way people gather together to make themselves feel strong and secure. Next to the staggering size and power of God – nothing!

Right Perspective: All that we have been considering in these three verses is about maintaining or even getting, a right perspective when it comes to God. Why did Israel need that? They needed it because so often they had been dominated by surrounding nations who seemed so mighty and so strong that they probably felt trodden down by those nations, and so the Lord’s objective here is to say, “Get a right perspective, realise who I am and realise how small and even insignificant they are by comparison. You have nothing to fear with me on your side.” Remember who we are, the people of God, and keep a right perspective and then you can realise who we truly are and be secure in that. Hallelujah!

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord, please help me to have a right perspective of the world, realizing that the wisdom of the world is as folly and only you have true wisdom and knowledge.


14. The All-Knowledgeable God

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.14. The All-Knowledgeable God

Isa 40:13,14    Who can fathom the Spirit of the Lord, or instruct the Lord as his counsellor?  Whom did the Lord consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was it that taught him knowledge, or showed him the path of understanding?

Overview: In verses 12 to 14 the prophet asks ‘who’ or ‘whom’ six times and they start the second half of the chapter that perhaps might be summarised in its entirety as, “There is no one like Him!” So we are considering these six questions and have already looked at the first two: Verse 12a:  Question 1: Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens?”  Verse 12b: Question 2: “Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance?”   Now we can move on.

Verse 13: Question 3: “Who can fathom the Spirit (or mind) of the Lord, or instruct the Lord as his counsellor?”  Learned men and women spend their lifetime researching and revealing just one tiny area of knowledge and then we realise that it is merely one tiny area of knowledge. The realm of knowledge is infinite, but we scale it down to manageable sight by the talk of mega-computers, quantum computers that are apparently incredibly fast and will hold incredible volumes of data. But it’s like looking down a microscope or up through a telescope, vision is brought close, but it is vision of enormity and that literally becomes mind blowing. This approaches in a small way the mind of God, but inadequately.

Verse 14a: Question 4: “Whom did the Lord consult to enlighten him.”  Does God need telling about any of this? Is He ever caught out by knowledge – “Oh, wow, that is wonderful. I didn’t know that”? No, His mind is beyond limit. For each and every one of us, we start life with a blank slate and we have to learn everything but one of the many incredible things about God is that He just knows – everything – and He always did and always will. Unlike us He never needed someone else to teach Him everything.

Verse 14b: Question 5: “and who taught him the right way?”  One of the amazing things of the world is that it works. It appears we are messing it up with holes in the ozone layer caused by too much carbon dioxide, but basically, it works. In the last century mathematicians and astronomers have observed that every sun and every planet appears to be moving outwards and therefore they work back and postulate a big-bang beginning (which of course was not a beginning but merely a continuation because we cannot conceive absolutely nothing and especially something coming from absolutely nothing – from ‘nothing nothing’ as Francis Schaeffer used to call it). But even human beings have a ‘right way’ to live, the way God has designed us to live and when we divert from that, as the history of the world shows us (“the history of the world is the history of wars” said one historian), it all goes pear-shaped. As we said before, we need someone (or a book or a computer produced by another human being) to teach us, but God needed no one to help Him design the world, and so when He made this world He, saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” (Gen 1:31) It was perfect.

Verse 14c: Question 6: Who was it that taught him knowledge, or showed him the path of understanding?” There it is, summing up all that has gone before. Who taught God all this? This is the challenge of the Bible to the mind of the atheist. If there is no God, all these things – the seas, the deserts, the mountains, the cosmos, all this is pure chance and should be utterly chaotic and random. One atheistic fiction writer has our end as dust in the Cosmos. No meaning, no purpose just dust. How staggeringly different from the magnificent respect and dignity given to human created in the image of God, with a destiny with Him in eternity.

Atheist Richard Dawkins at the beginning of one of his books quotes a friend of his: “We are the children of chaos, and the deep structure of change is decay. At root, there is only corruption, and the unstemmable tide of chaos. Gone is purpose; all that is left is direction. This is the bleakness we have to accept as we peer deeply and dispassionately into the heart of the Universe.” Dawkins, ever since recognizing how unappealing this is to humanity, has spent much time writing in a romantic vein about how wonderful the world is. Film makers like David Attenborough make wonderful films about how staggeringly wonderful the wild life of this world is – and it is!

And yet all these atheistic ‘philosophers’ (for that is what they are at heart) are struggling to deny what the rest of us acknowledge, that an impersonal beginning (i.e. no God) has an impersonal end and everything in between may appear to settle in a mechanistic pattern but the mystery is still why there is a pattern instead of no pattern and why there was not total chaos so nothing is predictable – but it is. The other struggle with us human beings (which shouldn’t be there in a bunch of accidental molecules), is that we have this sense of meaning and purpose in life, or as the wisest man on the earth once wrote about God, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Eccles 3:11)

The prophet cries out through history – God is coming, the God who made everything, the Creator of all things who, the Bible expands to include, is unique in His greatness, power and authority, His love, care, compassion and goodness and His knowledge, understanding, wisdom and insight. This is the God who is coming to His people. This is the message Isaiah brings. It was the message back there, and it is, now in a different context, the message for today. He is coming, and we will ALL have to face him.

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord, please forgive us that so often when we pray we tell you things you already know and even dare tell you how things should work out. I bow before you and acknowledge that you are all-mighty, all-powerful and all-knowing. You are God Almighty, my Lord.

13. The Enormity of God

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.13. The Enormity of God

Isa 40:12      Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens? Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance?

God, too small? And so we move into the second part of this chapter where we are presented with description after description of God to confront our small ideas. Quite a few years back, a translator of the New Testament, J.B.Phillips, about the middle of last century, wrote a little book entitled, “Your God is too small” whose title speaks for itself. I suspect its challenge is one that every single person on earth needs. We have two problems, we just cannot imagine the enormity that is God and we cannot really imagine having a living relationship with one so enormous. Perhaps that is one reason Jesus came.

Preparation: The recent verses in Isaiah 40  have been gradually easing us towards these things: “the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together,” (v.5) and, “The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them,” (v.7) and “the word of our God endures forever,” (v.8) and “the Sovereign Lord comes with  power, and he rules with a mighty arm.” (v.10) Already we have had hints of God’s glory that is so great it will be seen by every living person – Look, he is coming with the clouds,” and “every eye will see him.” (Rev 1:7) We’ve seen His power that can destroy, His word that lasts forever, and His sovereign power to rule. Each of these things hints at the greatness of God, but now the prophet will bring us challenge after challenge to believe in the greatness of God, and opportunity to meditate on it. Let’s consider verse 12, bit by bit.

 Water: “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand.” What an amazing picture this is. Two pictures. First, you with a cupped palm holding a handful of water. It is an easy picture.  Now, second, try and grasp a picture of the waters of the oceans. Imagine the terror of being out in it in a small boat with sixty-foot-high (easily twice the height of my house) waves and no end in sight. Now imagine we have a very, very fast small jet and we are going to go around the globe but only above the water and not the land. Imagine we leave, say New York and start south eastwards, across the thousands of miles down and across the Atlantic Ocean, and south around Africa, due east to Australia and to catch the enormity of it, north to Japan and then across the even mightier Pacific Ocean, then down the western seaboard of North and South America, around the tip of Argentina and then up the eastern seaboard of South and then North America.

It is a long way and we have seen a phenomenal amount of water, and we haven’t even thought about the depth of these oceans that, we are told, go up to 6 miles deep!  I cannot imagine going down 6 miles vertically in water!   Now imagine a hand that is so big it holds ALL this water. Now let’s be truthful; you probably lost it even half way across the Atlantic. It is virtually impossible to imagine realistically these distances and these depths – of water! And as for a hand holding all this water!!!!

Space & Earth: If that wasn’t bad enough, see where he goes next: “or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens?” The heavens? Space. But there appears no end of space and I know modern Star Trek or Star Wars films with speeds at faster than light have taken up to the edge of the galaxy, only to realise there are millions of other galaxies. At that point my mind gave up! But he doesn’t stop there, he comes back to earth: “Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance?” What? I am utterly lost. But isn’t that exactly what the prophet wants of us?

Challenge: What is he doing? He is challenging us with our silly, puny efforts and tiny thinking to grasp just a tiny bit of this concept of “God”. When theologians are reeling off the attributes of God as seen through the lens of the Bible, one of the words they use is ‘infinite’ which means unlimited, endless, immeasurable. Now let’s be honest, we can’t handle that. I cannot imagine a ‘Being’, and ‘Entity with personality’ that is that big and when I do struggle to grasp it, I sort of feel, well, surely He (it) is not going to be bothered with just a tiny atom of space we call the earth, and as for me on it, surely He won’t even notice me! And that is where we start falling into error of thinking which is so quickly followed by the error of behaviour. If He doesn’t see or doesn’t care, what does it matter what I do?

Jesus: I hinted at the answer earlier on: The Son is the image of the invisible God,” (Col 1:15) or as the Message version puts it, “We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen,” (I like that!) and in Hebrews “This Son perfectly mirrors God, and is stamped with God’s nature.” (Heb 1:3 Message version). However, when you see these verses in the context of Isaiah, you realise there is a danger with the picture of Jesus as God, or God’s Son, that we scale God down and put Him in human terms, small. Isaiah challenges us to ‘think big’ and when we do, we realise He is mighty, and we are small and when we really get hold of that, we join Job: “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know…. My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.  Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:3,5,6) We can save ourselves that humiliation by simply acknowledging God’s greatness and our smallness – and shut our mouths of any critical comment and instead just worship Him.  That is wisdom: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Psa 111:10) Wisdom starts with an awesome respect of God. May we have that wisdom.

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord, please forgive me that so often I allow my view of you to diminish. Please, open my eyes, open my heart afresh to see the wonder of who you are. I bow and worship you, my Lord, this day.

12. The Powerful Shepherd

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.12. The Powerful Shepherd

Isa 40:10      See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.

We have just seen the call to shout the good news that God is coming. Now we have two pictures describing the coming Lord.  First it is the picture of an all-powerful God but then it is of God who comes as the Shepherd of Israel, so let’s look, first of all, at the picture of the all-powerful God. “See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.” (v.10) Perhaps we should split that up so as to note exactly what it is saying.

“See”. Twice there is a call to observe. It is thus a call to really take note of what the prophet is saying. How we are often so casual when a prophetic word comes! If you have ever received a personal prophetic word, could you say exactly what it was a month later? Look and watch carefully, is the instruction.

“the Sovereign Lord comes”.  Many versions just put, “the Lord God” but the emphasis, we should see, is the same. It is God who is Lord of all, God who is sovereign. From verse 12 on the prophet is going to bring a word that emphasizes this, and we need to believe it and take it on board. God IS Lord of all things, Jesus IS ruling at his Father’s right hand. We may not understand why He gives such freedom to sinful mankind to do such awful things as history reveals, but I believe when we get to heaven, if He allows us to see every detail of history with His eyes, we will never be able to criticize Him for anything He did or didn’t do.

“with power”.  This God we are considering here is the Creator of the whole world, as we shall shortly be reminded and any Being who has that power is indeed mighty. When Jesus Christ, the Son of God, exercised his ministry we see in the gospels, example after example of him exercising the power of the Godhead as he deals with sickness, makes provision, walks on water, casts out demons and raises the dead. This is power!

“and he rules with a mighty arm”. This power is used for one end: to rule. To rule or reign means to be supreme over all peoples and circumstances so that His will is brought about. That is what God does and that is what He is coming to do. When Jesus comes back we see he will exercise this rule over all things (see Rev 19) We saw it in the previous study.

“See, his reward is with him”. Some versions use the word ‘recompense’ which really means a payment with a purpose.  The Bible is quite clear, the Lord rewards the righteous, e.g. Gen 15:1, 1 Sam 26:23,  1 Kings 8:32, Psa 58:11, Prov 11:18, 13:21, 22:4. When God comes He will judge between men and the righteous will be blessed or rewarded. In the New Testament we read, “a man reaps what he sows,” (Gal 6:7) for that is how God has made it to be.

“and his recompense accompanies him.” The two things go together – God and His reward. God’s character is to do good and so wherever He can He blesses His people. He will not bless evil, but He will bless His righteous people.

So here is the comfort for the downtrodden people of God: your God is coming, and His desire is to bless you. He will come to deal with evil (and he has the power to do that) and will reward and bless righteousness. Hallelujah!

But there is further reassurance, for this could be really scary and so we find this second picture in verse 11: “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.” (v.11) Verse 10 could leave us feeling somewhat awed with talk of the Lord’s sovereignty and His power and His mighty arm and His acts of judgment, but now the prophet speaks to the faithful, to believers whose consciences may be over-sensitive. Hey, he says, for you who are His flock, He will come like a shepherd and a shepherd is known for caring for His flock – see Psa 23, and the following verses here: “He gathers the lambs in his arms, and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”  (v.11b) What words of tender care!

If you are a young believer, have no fear, don’t be over-awed by Him, for His desire is to lift you in those strong arms that can be used for war, but instead He will use them to protect you and give you a sense of loving security, He will hold you close to His heart. And those of you teachers and evangelists who feel responsible for the young ones in the faith, be reassured the He will so gently be there for you in your caring role and He will so gently guide you and lead you in it.

This last verse in this part helps balance the strength of the first part. Yes, God is coming, and He is coming in power and will deal with the ungodly, but those who are faithful, those whose hearts are turned towards Him, know He is coming with love and care and compassion. He is for you!  Hallelujah!

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord, I recognise that your heart is to come more fully into my heart, my life, my circumstances and I bow before you who are the Lord of all.