The midweek ladies Bible class at our church is studying Isaiah this year and they kindly invited me to take three sessions over chapters 34-48. The occasion provided special incentive to read chapter 40 again, a passage that has encouraged and inspired me for at least that many years. This chapter begins the second major division of Isaiah, a message of comfort for Judean exiles during the Babylonian captivity written in advance but intended for encouragement later. (Quiz: What book in your home has 66 divisions in two major parts, 39 in the first, 27 in the second; the second part opening with a voice in the wilderness, ending with new heavens and earth, between which someone dies for the sins of others? Answer: the Book of Isaiah!)
This word of comfort (v. 1-2) begins with a cry to build a highway through the wilderness for God’s exiled people are coming home (v. 3-5). The Babylonian captivity presented an enormous faith crisis for the Jews. Was God unable to protect his chosen people? Did he not see what was happening? Did he not care? Had he forgotten his covenant? In this glorious chapter 40, the prophet Isaiah answers all these questions: “No, no, no, and no!” Before directing attention to God, however, the prophet announces the truth about all of us. All flesh is grass that withers, he declares (v. 6-8). We are frail, temporary mortals, our lifetime on earth is brief at best. Only when we see our own condition are we ready to appreciate the power, wisdom and love of our eternal God.
Our God is almighty and he comes with strength, but this is directed strength manifested in love for his people. God is the good Shepherd, tender, gentle and endlessly caring (v. 9-11). Yet this gentle Shepherd is Creator of heavens and earth (v. 12), the source of ultimate wisdom (v. 13-14), before whom the mightiest nations are like a drop from a bucket (v. 15-17) and to whom no other god can begin to be compared (v. 18-20). He is lord of nature and of history (v. 21-26). He sees and knows our pitiful plights (v. 27-28). He gives strength to those who trust in him (v. 29-30). “Those who wait for the LORD will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary” (v. 31).
It’s a long walk from Babylon to Jerusalem. Like those ancient pilgrims, we often grow tired also as we put one foot in front of the other through all the days of our lives. When you wonder whether you can take another step, hear the ancient prophet Isaiah and look to your God! Only those who feel their own need and their own helplessness will look to God. But for all who do so, he is the eternal, almighty Creator who is also our faithful, gentle, loving Shepherd.