25 May 2021
The book of Isaiah is the first of the latter prophets in the Hebrew Bible. Isaiah is regarded as one of the greatest prophets and one of the outstanding statesmen of the Jewish people.
The first 39 chapters sounded out judgement and warnings to God’s people. From chapter 40 to 60, Isaiah gives us the clearest Old Testament picture of the Messiah as the Servant of Jehovah. The heart of this section is of course chapter 53 which might well be called ‘the gospel according to Isaiah,’ with its clear picture of our Redeemer as “despised and rejected of man; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief…He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities.”
At this juncture, however, we will be looking at Isaiah 40. What is most striking is the somewhat parallel and similar situation believers face today, when compared with the message given by Isaiah in chapter 40. It was a time of national bewilderment and turmoil for God’s people. Assyria and Babylon were two of the ancient world’s major superpowers. Israel by contrast was a small and relatively powerless nation.
At this stage in Isaiah’s prophecy, Jerusalem has certainly been saved from Assyria. But the relief is short-lived. According to Isaiah, the city of Jerusalem will be sacked by the Babylonians and the inhabitants will be carried off into exile as captives (we have seen this in the book of Daniel).
Here, then, is a people facing almost crushing pressure. ‘Is God in control?’ The Babylonians were just round the corner; is God KIng of HIs people or not? When Jerusalem was subsequently overrun, we must picture many who were slain, including children and the vulnerable; many died of hunger, starvation in the siege; numerous suffered from illnesses and diseases in the midst of scarcity of food and provisions, and others were led away in chains and humiliation. The effects were becoming painfully felt by everyone in the nation – it was a time of uncertainty, anxiety and doubt!
Today in our context, many believers have to face persecution, imprisonment and even torture for their faith in not too few countries; the global pandemic is raging, with no end in sight; climate changes and calamities like flood, earthquakes, cyclones, famines are on the rise; the threat of war, terrorism, racial violence has broken up into actual conflcts in many fronts – this is certainly a time of turmoil, uncertainty, fear and mental distress.
Isaiah teaches us much about the stance and response needed for such a time; in the confident and yet reassuring words of Chapter 40 of his prophecy, some of the most remarkable affirmations in the whole Bible concerning the sovereignty of God, the God who reigns, are made. What comes through clearly is that God is indeed King who reigns as the sovereign Lord over all things – this in spite of the disturbing and tumultuous circumstances God’s people are facing.
In chapters 40 to 48, through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord declares words which came as strength to the people. Political commentators were pessimistic: it must have looked like the end of their nation. Yet the Lord promised a complete turn-round of events. Babylon will be overthrown by Cyrus of Persia and Cyrus would return the exiles to their homeland. How could this be possible? These events did take place.
Yet Isaiah is the mouthpiece to an even greater hope (which applies also to us believers today). God will step onto the stage of human history in person, to establish His rule for ever. He is coming; the King will come to HIs people – this is the goal of history! The God who is in control of the lives of the people of Jerusalem will reveal Himself to all men everywhere, as the God who reigns. He is the true King of HIs divine kingdom. God has already been made known to us in the fullest sense in Jesus Christ. History prepared us for it. Yet for us there is still more to come. Jesus’ second coming is confidently proclaimed by Isaiah: ‘The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken’ (Isa. 40:5).
The clear implication of Isaiah’s prophecy, which was given in response to a specific historical situation, is that God will be seen to reign as the God of the whole world beyond the borders of Israel. He will make HImself known universally. Jesus took hold of that promise and related it to HIs own return to this world. Therefore, even though God’s reign has not yet reached its final consummation, the promise stands and will be fulfilled. The certainty vitally affects our perspectives and objectives today.
God is speaking through Isaiah to a calamitous situation in Israel’s fortunes. Yet with His overall control of history, the Lord declares not only Israel’s distress to be nearing its end – but this same God is on HIs way, coming to their world and ours. God is neither silent nor passive. History will one daly come to an end and God will be there, in control. When the kingdom comes in all its power and glory, it will be the beginning of something altogether new.
But what kind of God are we talking about? This is the question the Israelites in Isaiah’s time were asking. Isaiah stood up and made grand affirmations on the God we worship.
The people were clamouring: ‘Look Isaiah, we are in the middle of a war. What is God really like? Has He any power? Is He in control? Perhaps, some of us believers today are also asking the same questions. God willing, we shall consider who God really is in Isaiah’s proclamations in subsequent sharing.