(Read Isaiah 41)
I read Isaiah 41 and get excited at first blush at all of its wonderful promises. Then I must remind myself to dig deeper, because a lot is going on here literally and figuratively. I used to hold to a rigid view of calling a promise made explicitly to Israel as off limits to me. It is important to understand the purposes and recipients of God’s words. Context is key. An interpretation of a passage taken too far and you have the church now as the stand-in for Israel, and bad doctrine ensues. In this case Isaiah is writing to the Jews soon to be exiled in Babylon, who will fear for their return to their beloved Israel. These fears seem to involve the timing and means of the exodus, and history and the word tells us that the one “from the east” is Cyrus the king of Persia, through whom the Jews were to be set free some 150 years later. But behind this historical figure is certainly God’s mighty and sovereign hand. This is the same God who set me free, and whose spirit resides in me, who is just as active today as in the times of Cyrus. So these promises in a broad sense are indeed available as the expected results of God’s standard operating procedures.
God desires a meeting of the minds in his court room. Not that we come together to understand one another, but that we acquiesce to all that he is saying, and keep our mouths shut, nay but to say only “Amen.” Isaiah wrote looking forward past Judah’s exile in Babylon to their deliverance some 70 years later. While Cyrus the Persian may have been all-powerful in human terms, he was a mere puppet on the Lord’s stage, and the nation’s unwitting pawns. Imagine God’s people amidst the uncertainty and fear of swirling rumors of a conquering king on the way to pulverize the nation in which they were held captive. Unless and until they understood Isaiah’s 150-year old prophecy, their anxiety would not abate.
Amidst all the circumstances of our lives, the hardship, the loss, the pain, or at the least, the uncertainty, we must realize that the Lord is on the move, the one whose eyes “move to and fro throughout the earth that he may strongly support those whose heart is completely his (2 Chronicles 16:9). It’s not the bad characters we see before us who hold our fate, but God who has “aroused” them to action with his benevolent intent in mind. Whatever unfolds, it is for our good, and the result of his tugging hand. It is easy to square up against these actors, holding them accountable and responsible. Nevertheless, they are set up by God to do his bidding. “Who has performed and accomplished it?” When God mobilizes, nothing stands in his way.
Evil people draw strength and encouragement from other evil people. They, in fact, surround themselves with willing accomplices, devising with them evil “fool proof” plans. Even the most elaborately constructed idol will ultimately totter at the hand of the Lord, and certainly evil schemes will be exposed for what they are and unravel in time. We must be comforted by God’s goodness and kindness toward us as we wait for his plan to unfold. It is easy to look all about us and see only doom and gloom. The Israelites would see the tightening noose of Cyrus and naturally be afraid, yet they were God’s chosen people, friends of God by way of Abraham. When things look bleak, God’s people can be consoled in knowing that his care is reserved only for them, and that he will get the glory in all of it. “Those who contend with God’s chosen ones will be as nothing and will perish.” His righteous right hand will assure this, and they–his people–will be left standing.
Verse 10 is packed withpromises. God will be with me. God will be my God. God will help me. God will strengthen me (i.e. to be made “stout”). God will hold on to me. This whole passage is played out by Jesus and Peter walking on the water (Matt. 14:28-31). Peter realizes where he is, i.e. he anxiously looks about, and begins to sink. The strong arm of Jesus pulls him up. Our problem is the same as Peter’s; wandering eyes and lack of faith.
Lest Israel (Jacob) become proud, he is reminded that he is but a “worm.” Just when we are feeling we have turned things around, we are reminded of our unilateral weakness (see Deut. 8:15-18). The good we might begin to see unfold is not wrought by us. God makes us “a new, sharp threshing sledge with double edges.” Old ways may no longer work. God must provide new ways to fix things. It’s about time we pray for something new-fangled instead of a return of the “same ole thing” Our response should be, “Surprise us, Lord!” If it’s even possible, God gets more glory when he creates something out of nothing out of nowhere.
When you begin seeing the Lord provide, be careful to remember who made you that “new, sharp threshing sledge with double edges.” It’s this new machine that allows you to thresh effectively, so that what besets you blows away with the wind. Not your own devices.
This whole process starts with our “seeking,” i.e. our prayers. The reference to Jacob as a “worm” refers to our littleness compared to the largess of God, and speaks to the Lord’s strategy to drive us to humility and dependence on him. Then he is positioned to act, and we are desperate to see him do so. The Lord’s provisions are always remarkable. Otherwise, it’s tempting to take credit ourselves. But when springs bubble up in the desert and water-loving trees thrive in arid conditions, we, and others–our detractors–stand up and take notice. With God, there are always new methods, new vitality, new growth, and especially, new insight and understanding. He wants us to know him, and to know him better each day. When we are fearful and afraid, it’s time to seek new strength. One other thing, and this may be cause for confusion. God’s provision is not always through believers, or perhaps, seldom through believers. e.g. Cyrus, “though you have not known me.” He uses every club in the bag.
We serve a God who delivers. All others are of “no account” and “worthless.” In Isaiah’s imaginary courtroom, God himself shreds his opponents. They can’t interpret the past and draw meaning from it. They can’t foretell the future and prepare for it. The true God announced in vivid detail what was going to happen to the exiles in 150 years, and history vindicates him! In his brilliant closing statement he says, “Surely there was no one who declared, surely there was no one who proclaimed, surely there was no one who heard your words.”
The living God is on our side!