By Tim Harris O Zion, that bringest good tidings, get thee up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, that bringest good tidings, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’ — Isaiah 40:9 God called Isaiah the prophet into a climate of unprecedented national darkness. The southern kingdom, Judah, was polluted with idolatry. Bribes ruled the civil courts. The exploitation and oppression of the poor ran like sewage in the streets. Forbidden political alliances with foreign nations were established. And quasi-worshippers of Yahweh were mere religious formalists. Though Isaiah urgently preached repentance, his words fell upon deaf ears. He warned of judgment, and none listened. He foretold of a Babylonian siege, captivity, and exile and was rejected. As if to seal the coffin of his countrymen, Isaiah’s unpopular ministry ended by his martyrdom, ordered by wicked king Manasseh. Jewish tradition tells us that he died gruesomely, being sawn in half (cf. Hebrews 11:37). Although social critique and forewarnings of judgment dominate over half of Isaiah’s book, chapters 40-66 are marked by hope. Isaiah would not especially direct such prophetic hope to the impenitent nation of his day but to the Jewish exiles that would read his words over one hundred years later, and to God’s ‘spiritual Israel’ in every generation. This ray of hope would not come as a new political figure, a powerful foreign ally, or even national economic prosperity. As is still the case today, there was but one source for hope and healing: God the Anointed. The Messiah.
While Jerusalem, Judah’s capital city and Isaiah’s hometown, would not be sacked by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar II for at least another century, Isaiah looks into the future and calls upon the holy city to herald good news to her downcast exiles of the captivity. Zion is told to announce the coming of Judah’s Deliverer: “Say unto the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’” Isaiah chapter forty begins the second major section of the long, prophetic book, focusing on the grace of God towards His people and their future redemption. There are three natural divisions in these final 27 chapters. Chapter forty inaugurates the first of the three divisions. The dominant theme of this first division is the vivid contrast between Yahweh and the idols of the land (chapters 40-48).
It’s no surprise that as Isaiah bids us “Behold your God!” he will go on to paint a breathtaking picture of this God we’re to behold.
He paints a mural of words, you might say, of the might and majesty of the Messiah, over against beggarly, powerless, wooden idols.
Picture this heavily bearded seer in your mind’s eye. Paint brush in hand. He begins painting the first scene onto the wall of our minds. Dark, sad colors appear and take the shape of the remains of the burned and ransacked city, Jerusalem. Then he portrays figures. We see smiles. Laughter. Warm embraces. Tears streaming down dusty faces. The exiles have returned home! The curse of captivity has ended. A scene of blessing, hope, and long-awaited comfort glistens on the wall. “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2). Remember, Isaiah writes these words over one hundred years before the 70-year captivity even started! Just think of the hope this would rekindle in the exiles by reading this promise regarding the end of Judah’s appointed time of misery and judgment! In striking similarity, Jesus Christ would utter the very first recorded words of His public ministry — breaking heaven’s four-hundred-year silence: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”(Matthew 5:5).
The curse for God’s people meets its end in the coming of the Christ!
Isaiah continues. The next scene depicts a man who would be the forerunner of the Messiah (Isaiah 40:3-8). This man would arrive before the Messiah and announce His coming. A wild-eyed, coarsely dressed character takes form, crying out in the wilderness. We know from Matthew’s gospel that this strange man is John the Baptist. He’s calling men to repent and telling of the coming of Christ throughout Judea (the very region of the ancient kingdom of Judah). Let this sink in.
Isaiah foretells the activities of John some 700 years before John was born!
“For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (Matthew 3:3).
Then He appears. The long-awaited Holy One is sketched on the mural. Walking in the land of shadows. There He is. He’s confident and determined but not flashy. “Behold, the Lord GOD will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him: behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him” (Isaiah 40:10). Isaiah here shows God coming to visit the earth, with payment in hand and with a work to do. On top of that, He looks a lot like a shepherd. Yes, Isaiah is painting some sheep next to Him. “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young” (Isaiah 40:11). Generations later, Jesus would ascribe this to Himself: “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep”(John 10:11).
Christ’s life was the ‘payment in hand’ and His death the ‘work before Him.’
Isaiah is talking about Jesus.
With these initial scenes painted before us, we get a taste of the very real and tangible coming of Yahweh as a man. But Isaiah doesn’t stop there. He feverishly adds colors and lines that begin to form a much more majestic image of our Messiah. It’s as if God through the prophet wants us to remember that, though a man on earth, the Messiah is the Almighty of heaven and earth. Isaiah shouts tauntingly to any idol challenger of Yahweh. “Who has measured the waters in the palm of his hand…or weighed the mountains in scales?”(Isaiah 40:12.) None but God. Not Buddha, Baal or Bill Gates. “Behold, the nations are counted as small dust of the balance.” Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia—America, China, North Korea—are like the tiny specks of dust that no one bothers to wipe off a balance before weighing something.
To this Mighty One, the United Nations is as inconsequential as thin air.
The colors continue to fly. Figures of tiny, wooden idols take shape on the wall painting. And there is Messiah above them, fierce and foreboding. His brow furrows in a question. “To whom then will ye liken me, or to whom shall I be equal?” (Isaiah 40:25.) Then, bringing this display of majesty to a climax, Isaiah splashes white specks all across the dark blue upper wall. Stars. Constellations. Galaxies. The prophet thunders these words: “Lift up your eyes on high, and behold who has created these things, that bringeth out their host by number! He calleth them all by names by the greatness of his might, for He is strong in power; not one faileth” (Isaiah 40:26). There are some 1x1022-1024 stars in our universe, astronomers estimate (that’s 1,000,000 times more stars than the estimated grains of sand on all the earth’s beaches, 75x1017!) And God made them all. He numbered them all. He calls them all by names. Not one is missing!
Isaiah tells this in prophecy to the weary exiles who doubted if God was big enough to take notice of their plight. “Why sayest thou, O Jacob, ‘My way is hid from the Lord?” He continues assuring. “Hast thou not known? Hast though not heard that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? There is no searching of His understanding”(40:27-28). Do you see this picture Isaiah has painted of our Messiah?
He’s a man like you and me, but also the Almighty, the Creator, the Shepherd of souls and stars.
Does it not give you cause for hope that He takes notice of you too? There is no use looking around, and even less looking within ourselves, for help. We’ve only to gaze upon the incomparable, incomprehensible, saving majesty of Jesus to find that “we are more wicked than we ever dared believe, but more loved and accepted in Christ than we ever dared hope—at the very same time,” as someone put it. He takes notice of our plight. “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else” (Isaiah 45:22).
It is in looking by faith upon our curse-bearing Christ lifted high on a pole that we receive cure for the venom flowing through our veins (John 3:14-15). It is as we “behold the (suffering) Lamb of God” that we “see His glory” (John 1:14, 29). It is by beholding the scars in His hands that we stop doubting His love for us. It is while “beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, (that we) are changed into the same image from glory to glory” by His Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18). It is “while we look not at those things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen” that we are inwardly renewed, daily (2 Corinthians 4:18).
How we must abide in God’s word and bathe our souls in the gospel!
It’s the fresh glimpse of the Savior’s tender care and fierce majesty that renews our spirits. “Even the youths shall faint and be weary,” Isaiah says, as he closes his chapter. “But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength” (Isaiah 40:31). If we desire to soar above feeble affections for God and feeble war against our sins, we must daily wait upon, fix our gaze upon, and behold our God in Christ.
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