Beyond the Surrogate (Isaiah 40)

What do you think of when you think of God?  An old man with a long white beard?  A cosmic judge?  An ineffectual grandfather, who winks at sin and pats our heads approvingly?

A number of years ago, a group of psychologists did an experiment to test the parental bonds formed in young monkeys.  The research animals were presented with two “surrogate” mothers.  The first offered food, but it was made of cold, steel wire.  The second offered no food, but it was made of soft cloth, made to resemble animal fur.  Which do you think the monkeys clung to?  That’s right; even though the soft cloth “surrogate” offered no food, no sustenance, the monkeys clung more tightly to its warmth than to the cold steel alternative.

And that’s what it’s like, for a lot of people.  Our lesser “gods”—sex, career, entertainment, you name it—offer us no substance or enduring value.  But they “seem” warmer, or offer more immediate security than a God that I can’t hear or see or touch.

But God is closer than we think, Isaiah tells us.  Isaiah’s prophecy offers us a rich, multi-textured portrait of God.  His righteousness collides violently with man’s wickedness, and in the aftermath we see the grace he extends to those who trust in His name.

GOD OF COMFORT

It’s hard to summarize Isaiah’s entire message in a few paragraphs.  In Isaiah chapters 1-39, Isaiah’s prophecy centers on the judgment coming to Israel.  Then, in chapter 40, the tone of the entire book shifts.  Now, Isaiah describes God as the One who comforts Israel following her return from exile.  Keep in mind, all of this is yet future.  If God knows the events of the future, then surely he can speak through Isaiah to describe the events following the time of exile.

But this also tells us something timelessly significant about the character of God.  The character that Isaiah describes here is the same God who will one day offer comfort to all people in the formation of the New Heavens and New Earth—themes that we will explore as we see Isaiah’s prophecy unfold before our eyes.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.  3 A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  5 And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”  6 A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.  7 The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass.  8 The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.  9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!”  10 Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.  11 He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.  (Isaiah 40:1-11)

The promise of comfort announces that Israel’s “hard service” has been completed, and that “her sin has been paid for.”  Israel looked forward to a day when God would reign on earth as their earthly King.  They also looked forward to the day when God’s presence would be felt on earth in a more direct way than merely in the Temple.  What they never expected was that both these expectations would be fulfilled in the same person.  John the Baptist borrows language here to point to Jesus, the coming Messiah, who brings the presence of God up close and personal, and also points to Jesus’ coming role as King and Lord over His people.

It is a portrait that must be harmonized with the incredible display of God’s power, a theme that Isaiah elaborates on in the next section.

GOD OF POWER

 12 Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?  13 Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD, or what man shows him his counsel?  14 Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?  15 Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales; behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust.  16 Lebanon would not suffice for fuel, nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering.  17 All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.  18 To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?  19 An idol! A craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and casts for it silver chains.  20 He who is too impoverished for an offering chooses wood that will not rot; he seeks out a skillful craftsman to set up an idol that will not move.  21 Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?  22 It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in;  23 who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.  24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows on them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble.  25 To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One.  26 Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing.  27 Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God”?  28 Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.  29 He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.  30 Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted;  31 but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:12-31)

Stop and think.  Everything we believe about Jesus, we believe about God.  And I love that, because it means that when I read passages like this one from Isaiah, it gives me a deeper and wider understanding of just who Jesus was—and is—and ever shall be.

Too often we worship a god that best serves us.  But who wants a god that can fit in their jacket pocket?  This only deepens our commitment to self rather than call us away from it.  Where’s the comfort in that?  When trouble comes—and it will—what will you turn to?  The God of Isaiah’s text?  Or the god of our own imaginations?  Only one will truly offer us lasting strength, lasting peace, lasting power.

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