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Isaiah: Prince of Prophets—“The Creator who is a Comforter”

Notes & Transcripts

David Hume, the Scottish skeptic, defended his skepticism quite dramatically. He once wrote: “Were a stranger to drop suddenly into this world, I would show him a specimen of its ills—a hospital full of diseases, a prison crowded with malefactors and debtors, a field strewn with carcasses, a fleet floundering in the ocean, a nation languishing under tyranny, famine, or pestilence. Honestly, I don’t see how you can possibly square that with an ultimate purpose of love.” Indeed the problem of suffering is often the prime excuse of the skeptic and the atheist.

Israel—for the moments—stands on Hume’s side. Jerusalem was destroyed. The majority of the Jewish population lived in exile in Babylon. Yahweh, the God of Israel, appeared to have gone down to defeat by the Babylonian army and their gods. Parents have seen their babies – against the rocks. What hope did the Jews have? Perhaps it was time just to forget God and get on with life the best they could. But God was not finished. He had a message for Babylon. The message featured a courtroom confrontation between Yahweh of Israel and the images of Babylon. Who was the true God? Yahweh will set the agenda. He will show that He alone controls history. Babylon’s god’s will remain silent for they are really not gods at all. Idols of mere wood and stone have no power of speech, much less the ability to control history.

We can all probably list with David Hume the problems we face and the insurmountable difficulties in the world that we are witnesses to. It’s at that moment that we need a word from God to show that he is still our God and that he will lead us to a new hope.

Isaiah 40-41 is about that hope. The primary aim of chapters 40–41 is to demonstrate that Israel’s God is superior to anything else that man might be prone to worship. He is superior in (1) comparison, (2) confrontation, and (3) commitment.

I. THE SOVEREIGN CREATOR COMFORTS HIS PEOPLE

            1. the historical focus changes dramatically with chapter 40
                1. in chapters 1-39, Isaiah refers to political events that took place prior to the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (722/1 B.C.) and deals with Assyria’s threat to invade Judah during the second half of the eighth century
                    1. these are events that occur in the Prophet’s own life time
                2. beginning in chapter 40, Isaiah sees that the Babylonian captivity has commenced and Israel is living in Babylon, not Jerusalem
                    1. the nation has been stripped of everything valuable—including its people
                      • “Who handed Jacob over to become loot, and Israel to the plunderers? Was it not the LORD, against whom we have sinned? For they would not follow his ways; they did not obey his law.” (Isaiah 42:24, NIV84)
                3. Isaiah also calls out a name: Cyrus of Persia is occupying center stage politically
                  • “This is what the LORD says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut:” (Isaiah 45:1, NIV84)
                    1. Isaiah is now looking 140 years into the future of Israel
                    2. for this reason, man modern scholars discount that Isaiah could have written chapters 40-66
            2. the contrast between chapters 39 and 40 couldn’t be greater
                    1. in chapter 39 Babylon is a rebellious vassal on Assyria’s southern boarder seeking to enlist King Hezekiah’s aid
                1. the chapter ends with Isaiah assuring Hezekiah that his reign will be secure, peaceful and prosperous, but that his descendants will be carried off to Babylon
                  • “Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the LORD Almighty: The time will surely come when everything in your palace, and all that your fathers have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the LORD. And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood who will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” “The word of the LORD you have spoken is good,” Hezekiah replied. For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my lifetime.”
            3. there will be peace and prosperity in Hezekiah’s own day (the period of Assyrian supremacy), but the descendants of Hezekiah were to go into exile in a an ascended Babylon
                1. it all happened exactly as God revealed it would
                    1. by 605 B.C. Nineveh and Assyria had fallen
                    2. Egypt and Babylon are seeking supremacy of the Fertile Crescent
                    3. the young a militarily brilliant Nebuchadnezzar sweeps out of Babylon and subdues the Egyptians
                    4. he then turns his attention toward Judah and attacks three different times in as many years, each time taking captives and leaving only a remnant of the weakest, poorest, and least threatening Jews who remained
            4. it is to these people who will be in exile that Isaiah offers comfort and reassurance

II. THE SOVEREIGN CREATOR IS A SUPERIOR GOD

A. SUPERIOR IN COMPARISON (to everything) (40:12–31).

            1. man is impressed with the magnitude and might of many things in this world
            2. the God of the Bible is superior to them all
            3. First, he is greater than the created world
                1. Isaiah asked a series of questions designed to put man in his proper place
                    1. the greatness of God is indicated by the vastness of his creation
                2. God is self-sufficient and independent
                    1. He did not solicit advice when he created the world
                    2. the Lord does not need man to instruct him about the right course of action
                      • “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? Who has understood the mind of the LORD, or instructed him as his counselor? 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?” (Isaiah 40:12–14, NIV84)
                    3. these are all rhetorical questions that the author knows the answer to and so does his audience
            4. Second, God is greater than the nations
                1. the great strength of the mightiest nations is like a speck of dust or a drop in the bucket to God
                2. if one were to build an altar fire with all the cedars of Lebanon, and sacrifice every beast in those forests, he still would not have made a sacrifice worthy of such a great God
                  • “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. Lebanon is not sufficient for altar fires, nor its animals enough for burnt offerings. Before him all the nations are as nothing; they are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing.” (Isaiah 40:15–17, NIV84)
            5. Third, God is greater than the idols
                1. idols are representations created by man
                    1. no matter how beautiful the craftsmanship, no matter how precious the materials, idols cannot capture the essence of God
                      • “To whom, then, will you compare God? What image will you compare him to? As for an idol, a craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and fashions silver chains for it. A man too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot. He looks for a skilled craftsman to set up an idol that will not topple.” (Isaiah 40:18–20, NIV84)
            6. Fourth, God is greater than rulers
                1. from the beginning the knowledge of the sovereign Creator had been handed down
                2. He sits upon his throne “on the circle of the earth” providentially upholding and maintaining all that exists
                3. the heavens themselves are the curtains of his tent!
                4. mighty rulers of this world are under his authority
                    1. He can deprive them of power in an instant
                    2. He merely breathes on them and they wither like a plant, and are blown off the scene of history like worthless stubble
                      • “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? 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. 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.” (Isaiah 40:21–24, NIV84)
            7. Fifth, God is greater than the stars
                1. heavenly bodies should not be deified as they were in Mesopotamia
                    1. worship belongs only to the Holy One who created the stars
                2. Isaiah likened God to a mighty general who leads his troops across the heavens
                    1. every star is in the exact place God would have it
                    2. implicit in these verses is an attack against the major tenets of astrology
                      • “To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One. Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.” (Isaiah 40:25–26, NIV84)
            8. Finally, God is greater than discouragement
                1. despondent Israelites must never forget who their God is
                2. He is
                    1. eternal,
                    2. omnipotent,
                    3. omnipresent,
                    4. omniscient,
                    5. constantly alert, and
                    6. compassionate
                3. He can strengthen those who wait for him in faith
                4. this infusion of spiritual power makes believers like
                    1. an eagle in flight,
                    2. like a runner in competition, and
                    3. like a hiker on a long trek (40:27–31)
                      • “Why do you say, O Jacob, and complain, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD; my cause is disregarded by my God”? 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. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” (Isaiah 40:27–31, NIV84)

B. SUPERIOR IN CONFRONTATION (41:1–7, 21–29).

            1. Isaiah is quoting the words of Yahweh throughout chapter 41
                1. the Lord addressed first the nations, then Israel, and finally the idols
                2. the first and third units are cast in the form of a confrontation
            2. Confrontation with the nations (41:1–7)
                1. Yahweh ordered distant nations to listen, then to muster their strength so that they might enter the court of public opinion with him
                2. God announced to the nations his intention to raise up one from the east who would swiftly subdue all his enemies
                    1. this is the first allusion to the role of Cyrus the Persian who would not gain world power for yet 150 years
                    2. raising up a conqueror is not difficult for the Lord, for he had brought forth generation after generation from the very beginning
                3. God was present to welcome the first world conqueror on the scene, and he will be here when the last one passes from the scene (41:1–4)
                  • “Be silent before me, you islands! Let the nations renew their strength! Let them come forward and speak; let us meet together at the place of judgment. “Who has stirred up one from the east, calling him in righteousness to his service? He hands nations over to him and subdues kings before him. He turns them to dust with his sword, to windblown chaff with his bow. He pursues them and moves on unscathed, by a path his feet have not traveled before. Who has done this and carried it through, calling forth the generations from the beginning? I, the LORD—with the first of them and with the last—I am he.” (Isaiah 41:1–4, NIV84)
                4. God will use Cyrus to punish all those nations who lifted up their hands to God’s people and God will use Cyrus to restore His people to the land
            3. Confrontation with the idols (41:21–29)
                1. the King of Jacob (God) challenged the idols to present the case for their deity
                2. He urged them to
                    1. make known former things; i.e. explain why things have happened the way the have
                    2. make known future things; and
                    3. do good or evil, i.e., do something
                3. the gods failed to meet the challenge
                    1. Isaiah therefore pressed the conclusion that idols are non-entities
                    2. an those who choose to worship an idol are as loathsome as the idol itself
                      • “Present your case,” says the LORD. “Set forth your arguments,” says Jacob’s King. “Bring in your idols to tell us what is going to happen. Tell us what the former things were, so that we may consider them and know their final outcome. Or declare to us the things to come, tell us what the future holds, so we may know that you are gods. Do something, whether good or bad, so that we will be dismayed and filled with fear. But you are less than nothing and your works are utterly worthless; he who chooses you is detestable.” (Isaiah 41:21–24, NIV84)
                4. in contrast to the silence of the idols, Yahweh announced what he was about to do
                    1. He would arouse one from the north and this conqueror would “from the rising of the sun he will call on my name”
                    2. this is exactly what happened
                        1. Cyrus’ military advance moved from the east to the north, and then south to Babylon
                        2. when Ezra prevailed upon Cyrus to let the Jews return to Judah Cyrus called on God’s name in the decree which he issued allowing the Jews to return to their land
                    3. since idols could not foretell future events Isaiah again pressed the conclusion that idols are empty and vain
                      • “Who told of this from the beginning, so we could know, or beforehand, so we could say, ‘He was right’? No one told of this, no one foretold it, no one heard any words from you. I was the first to tell Zion, ‘Look, here they are!’ I gave to Jerusalem a messenger of good tidings. I look but there is no one— no one among them to give counsel, no one to give answer when I ask them. See, they are all false! Their deeds amount to nothing; their images are but wind and confusion.” (Isaiah 41:26–29, NIV84)
            4. whether God confronts idols or nations, He always wins!

C. SUPERIOR IN COMMITMENT (41:8–20).

            1. in spite of Israel’s disappointing dalliance with idolatry, God remained faithful to his commitment to be their God
                1. He reassured his people of love and support in four areas
            2. First, God assured his people of their position
                1. in spite of all that had happened (judgment on Jerusalem) or would happen (rise of Cyrus), the descendants of Abraham still enjoyed a unique relationship with God
                2. the terms “chosen” and “my servant” apply to Israel because Israel was the descendant of God’s friend—Abraham
            3. Second, God assured his people of deliverance
                1. the rise of Cyrus would mean the deliverance of Israel
                2. all nations which were hostile to God’s people would be put to shame.
            4. Third, God assured his people of victory
                1. after deliverance through the agency of Cyrus, Israel would become a threshing sledge
                    1. this instrument was pulled by oxen over the threshing floor in order to break loose the kernels of grain from the husk
                    2. mountains of grain (the nations) would be threshed by Israel
                    3. while it’s impossible to know for sure, Isaiah may be predicting the crushing victories of the Maccabees during the intertestamental period that allowed Israel to become an independent nation again
            5. Fourth, God assured his people of provision
                1. whether they be afflicted, needy or thirsty, God would respond to the prayers of his people
                2. He would give them an abundance of waters and turn their deserts into shady woods
                  • “The poor and needy search for water, but there is none; their tongues are parched with thirst. But I the LORD will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them. I will make rivers flow on barren heights, and springs within the valleys. I will turn the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs. I will put in the desert the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive. I will set pines in the wasteland, the fir and the cypress together, so that people may see and know, may consider and understand, that the hand of the LORD has done this, that the Holy One of Israel has created it.” (Isaiah 41:17–20, NIV84)

III. Lessons from Isaiah 40-41

A. God Is Faithful to His People Even When They Are Unfaithful to Him

B. God Controls the Destiny of All Peoples and Nations

C. God Can Use Any Person He Chooses to Accomplish His Purposes

D. God Alone Knows the Future, since He Alone Controls History

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