ISAIAH 40.18-31: THOSE WHO WAIT FOR THE LORD WILL RENEW THEIR STRENGTH. A Bible study prepared by Paul Beasley-Murray to supplement Comfortable Words – A Call to Restoration: Reflections on Isaiah 40-55 (BRF 2021) by Steven Croft.
DOES GOD CARE?
The former American President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was a good friend of a famous naturalist, William Beebe. Whenever they got together of an evening, they had a little ritual. After their evening’s chat they would go outside and look into the night sky. Gazing into the stars, they would find the lower left-hand corner of the great square of Pegasus. One of them would recite these words, as part of their ritual: “That is a spiral galaxy of Andromeda. It is as large as our Milky Way. It is one of a 100 million galaxies. It is 750,000 light-years away. It consists of 100 billion suns, each larger than our sun”. Then they would then pause, and Roosevelt would finally say, “Now I think we feel small enough. Let us go to bed”.
No doubt that was a fitting ritual for an American President or indeed a British Prime Minister, who might well be tempted to think that the world revolves around him. But we don’t want to be reminded how insignificant we are. We don’t want to know that. in the words of Is 40.17 we are simply like “like grasshoppers” (40.17) before the Creator. We want to know that we count.
With that thought in mind let’s turn to Isaiah 40.18-31. At the time when the second half of Isaiah was written, the fortunes of Israel were at their lowest ebb. The cream of the nation had been taken away in exile to Babylon – Jerusalem had been destroyed. Not surprisingly some questioned whether God really cared for his people. Or if he did care, then maybe the situation was beyond him – maybe he was not in fact God of all the earth, maybe he was simply Israel’s God, in the sense that his power and authority limited to a particular geographical area. This then is the context in which the prophet said to his compatriots:
40.27: Why do you say….’My way is hidden from the Lord and my right is disregarded by my God? Or in the words of the GNB: “Israel, why…do you complain that the Lord doesn’t know your troubles or care if you suffer from injustice?” Or as Eugene Peterson put it, the Jews in exile were saying: “God has lock track of me. He doesn’t care what happens to me” (The Message).
I guess that there are many people today who wonder whether God really cares about the pain and suffering of our world: if God is really God, then why has he allowed so many to die in this dreadful pandemic? To quote Steven Croft: “The pain around us overwhelms our defences”.
QUESTION: How do we cope with or react to all the pain of the world? According to Steven Croft: “The temptations is to numb all this negative emotion, to overlay it, to disguise it through shopping, social media, food, alcohol or other addictive behaviours. We numb.” To what extent do you think that is true?
QUESTION: How have you coped with your personal pain? I would imagine that all of us have friends who have died – some may even have had family who have died. In addition there is the pain of seeing businesses of friends or loved ones destroyed; for many money is extraordinarily tight. Or maybe you are affected by the pain your grandchildren have experienced: here I have in mind not just the way in which their education has been messed up, but the way in which their mental health has been affected.
GOD DOES CARE!
In this context the prophet responds by reminding them not just that God cares, but that God’s care is not limited in any way:
Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable”. GNB “Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? The Lord is the everlasting God; he created all the world. He never grows tired or weary. No one understands his thoughts.
God never wrings his hands out of sheer helplessness. God is in another league from us.
- God can cope with each and every situation. We may wonder if things ever get too much for God; but in fact there is no point at which the concerns of the world ever get ‘on top of him’. “He never grows tired or weary”. There is never a point at which he collapses at his desk, and with his head in his hands says “Oh dear, I just can’t cope any more”. He is “the Lord”: i.e. he is almighty God. The particular situation in which you find yourself may be beyond you, but it is not beyond God.
- God can cope with matters small as well as large. He has not just an eye for the grand over-all design; he has also an eye for detail. There is nothing too small or too trivial for him. The prophet declares: “Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing” (40.26). GNB: “Look up at the sky! Who created the stars you see? The one who leads them out like an army, he knows how many there are and calls each one by name. His power is so great – not one of them is ever missing!” By inference, what is true of the stars must be true even more of us, his children. In the light of eternity your situation may seem trivial, and yet not too trivial to God. If it is important to you, then you can be sure that it is important to God.
- God is broad ranging in his love and concern. “The Lord is the everlasting God” (v28). Literally he is ‘God of an age’: i.e. he is ‘a God of the long view’. In the words of one commentator: “His strategies point to the ages, not to the moment” (Watts). From within our particular timeframe we may think that there is only one course of action possible – but from God’s perspective there may be other and indeed better solutions to our problems. So be patient.
GOD GIVES STRENGTH TO ALL WHO TURN TO HIM
God shows his love and care by giving strength to the weak
40.29,30: “He gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted.” GNB: “He strengthens those who are weak and tired. Even those who are young grow weak; young people can fall exhausted”. REB: “Even the fittest may stumble and fall”.
This talk of weakness and exhaustion may seem strange to younger people, but as some of us know all too well, there comes a time when we discover that our natural strength begins to fail. Here I’m not just referring to the inevitable advances of old age, but to the effects of the stresses and strains of modern life. There comes a time when we feel that we just can’t keep the pace – we feel as if we’re going to crack up – for everything has just got that bit too much. The “good news” is God “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless” (40.29).. GNB “he strengthens those who are weak and tired”.
Yet this power not given willy-nilly. There is a condition that accompanies this promise. Strength is only given to those “who wait for the Lord”:
“But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (40.31)
NB other translations: REB: “those who look to the Lord will win new strength”; NIV: “those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength”.
How does this work out in practice? How can we “run and not get weary”? How can we “walk and not grow weak”? The secret of survival is surely withdrawal. Christian living involves not only ‘running’ (i.e. busy activity) or ‘walking’ (i.e. steady routine), but also taking time out in prayer and quiet reflection – it involves what the older versions call “waiting on the Lord”.
If we would know God’s strength in our lives, then we must make time to be still before him. The Quaker John Southall:
We cannot go through life strong and fresh on constant express trains; but we must have quiet hours, secret places of the Most High, times of waiting upon the Lord when we renew our strength & learn to mount up on swings as eagles, and then come back to run and not be weary, and to walk and not faint.
God’s power has been likened to a fast-flowing stream:
The current carries the swimmer along with it; he has to swim too, of course, but with the help of the current he can go further & faster, & with less effort than he could by himself. In our weakness we need to swim in the stream of God’s almighty power. (Tom Wright)
Or to go back to the imagery employed in Isaiah 40: “The soaring eagle is borne aloft not by his powerful wings, but by the wind’s currents lifting his rigid pinions. Those waiting are those prepared to be lifted up and carried aloft by the spirit of God in his time and his way” (Watts). This doesn’t mean that we shall not be tired – but we shall not be exhausted/burnt-out, with nothing more to offer.
QUESTION: How do you wait for the Lord?