ISAIAH 41: 8-13: DO NOT BE AFRAID: 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. Fellowship Group 12 May 2021
As Steven Croft rightly says, “Fear has been a feature of our journey through Covid-19: fear of the disease itself and its consequences; fear of death and dying; fear of the effects on our families” (29). As a result the prophet’s call to God’s people to not be afraid is wonderfully reassuring.
Twice we hear God saying to his people that there is nothing to fear – for he is with us.
41.10: “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you. I will uphold you with my victorious right hand”
GNB: Do not be afraid – I am with you! I am your God – let nothing terrify you! I will make you strong and help you; I will protect you and save you”.
The Message: “Don’t panic, I’m with you. There is no need to fear, for I am your God. I’ll give you strength. I’ll help you. I’ll hold you steady, keep a firm grip on you”
41.13: “I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; It is I who say to you, ‘Do not fear, I will help you”.
GNB “I am the Lord your God; I strengthen you and say, ‘Do not be afraid; I will help you’”.
The Message: “Because I, your God, have a firm grip on you and I’m not letting go, I am telling you, ‘Don’t panic. I am right here to help you’”.
“Do not fear” – “Do not be afraid” – “Do not panic”. What a comfort these words are! Unfortunately, Steven Croft does not do justice to the text. He fails to explain why those to whom he was writing did not need to fear.
For this reason I am not going to limit myself to Isaiah 41.8-13. Instead I want to set God’s call not to be afraid within the context of the chapter as a whole.
- DON’T’ BE AFRAID: GOD IS IN CONTROL (41.2-7)
Babylon was in a state of panic, for Cyrus, the Persian warrior-king, was in the process of carrying out a series of lightning strikes against the surrounding nations. True, Cyrus is not mentioned by name, but anybody listening to this prophecy would have known who the “victor from the east” (41.2) was. Listen to the GNB translation of 41.2,3:
Who was it that brought the conqueror from the east, and makes him triumphant wherever he goes? Who gives him victory over kings and nations? His sword strikes them down as if they were dust. His arrows scatter them like straw before the wine. He follows in pursuit and marches safely on, so fast that he hardly touches the ground!
Cyrus had become king in 559 BC, when Persia was subject to the kingdom of Media. But in 549 Cyrus killed the Median king Astyges, and began to create a huge empire, conquering one country after another. First he moved west, conquering King Croesus of Lydia in 547 BC and subdued Asia Minor, the area we now call Turkey. Then he turned east to extend his rule into NW India, and began to mop up sections of the Babylonian empire there. Finally in 539 BC he took Babylon itself.
However, at the time of the prophecy, Babylon had yet to be taken. Almost certainly the prophet was speaking in the midst of Cyrus’ whirlwind campaign. But the writing was on the wall. The Babylonians were in panic (41.5). Carpenters and goldsmiths produced stacks of idols in the hope of warding off the power of the enemy – but in vain (41.6-7). Cyrus was smashing every obstacle before him.
No doubt the Jewish exiles shared the fears of their captors. In this context God through the prophet declares there is no need to fear. Cyrus may have been powerful, but he was not all-powerful. God alone was almighty. Cyrus was but God’s “servant”. Cyrus was but the means God was using to work his purpose out. That purpose was worked out, when Cyrus took Babylon. For he it was who reversed the Babylonian policy of deportation and quickly embarked on a programme of repatriating displaced peoples and restoring their places of worship. He it was who, humanly speaking, was responsible for setting in train the return of the Jews from exile. But behind Cyrus lay God. Listen to God speaking through the prophet:
41.4: “Who has performed and done this, calling the generations from the beginning? I, the Lord, am first, and will be the last”. Or in the words of the GNB: “Who was it that made this happen? Who has determined the course of history? I, the Lord, was there at the beginning, and I, the Lord, will be there at the end.”
Behind the pages of all human history, stands God. God did not simply create the world, he continues to control its final outcome. God is working his purposes out. History is His Story. True, there are times when it seems difficult to believe that God is in control. The pandemic is one of those times. But as Paul wrote to the Romans: “We know that in all things God works for good with those who love him” (Rom 8.28 GNB).
- DON’T BE AFRAID: GOD CARES FOR YOU
God is not only all-powerful, he is also all-loving. Power in itself does not provide motivation to help. The fact that God determines the course of human history is not of itself good news. It is only good news because God cares for his people. Precisely because he cares, there is no reason to be afraid. Look at 40.14:
”Do not fear, you worm Jacob, you insect Israel. I will help you, says the Lord; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel”. The REB translates: “Have no fear, Jacob, you worm and Israel you maggot”. Another translation speaks of Israel as a “louse”!
There is nothing very edifying about these terms. How would you like to be called a worm, or a maggot, or a louse? Yet the truth is that we humans in God’s sight we are as small and as loathsome as the most disagreeable of living creatures. There is nothing inherently attractive about us. Nonetheless God says: ‘”Small and weak as you are” (GNB), loathsome and revolting as you are, don’t be afraid; I will help you!’
The exile did not mean that God had given up on his people. God still has a purpose for them. So he says to the exiles: “You are my servant. I have chosen you and have no cast you off” (41.19). God cares for his people. I find this enormously heart-warming. For there are times when I wonder what value does my life have? My life seems so small and insignificant. Has my life any more value than the worm or maggot that may creep and crawl around my garden? Amazingly. it does have value. God has chosen me. He has chosen you. We have value in his sight – in spite of our puny insignificance. Indeed, God values us so much that he gave his only Son to come and live and die for us. In spite of the mess we have made of our lives and of our world, “the holy God” has never given up on us.
DO NOT BE AFRAID
God is sovereign. He is in control. He cares for us. This is the context in which God says to us: “Fear not”. I am reminded of the old chorus I used to sing as a child:
God is still on the throne,
And He will remember His own;
Tho’ trials may press us and burdens distress us,
He never will leave us alone;
God is still on the throne,
He never forsaketh His own;
His promise is true, He will not forget you,
God is still on the throne.
Only now can we acknowledge and address our fears – not least those fears which have arisen during this time of pandemic.
For our group work I propose we address the questions which Steven Croft raises (33).
- What part has fear played in your own life and your life’s journey?
- What part is anxiety playing now in the key decisions of your life? Does it have too loud a voice?
- Does all of that fear and caution have the support of reason?
- Are there inner fears which you are keeping buried deep inside and cannot name or talk through with those closes to you?
- Are those chains of fear shaping the decisions you make in your work or your Christian service?
Croft ends by quoting a ninth century hymn, Veni Creator. Unfortunately, the English translation he uses is extraordinarily dated. Let me instead quote a 20th century version of that hymn (Jubilate Hymns version):
Creative Spirit, come inspire
our lives with light and heavenly fire;
now make us willing to receive
the sevenfold gifts you freely give.
Your pure anointing from above
is comfort, life, and fire of love:
so heal with your eternal light
the blindness of our human sight.
Anoint and cheer our saddened face
with all the fulness of your grace;
remove our fears, give peace at home –
where you are guide, no harm can come.
Teach us to know the Father, Son,
and you with them the Three-in-One,
that through the ages all along
this shall be our endless song:
Praise to your eternal merit
Father, Son and Holy Spirit.