Isaiah 40. What Shall I Cry?
Key Notes: The first half of the chapter has 6–7 messianic prophecies. The second half asks seven rhetorical questions about God. He is huge in comparison to the universe, but He cares about the insides of cells.
Isaiah 40–66 takes us away from the present troubles of Judah and into the distant future. Many critics believe it was written after the Exile by another person under Isaiah's name. But Isaiah 40–66 is cited 14 times in the NT under the name "Isaiah". "The Holy One of Israel", a name little use elsewhere in the OT, is found equally in both halves of the book— 12 times in chapter 1–39 and 14 times in chapter 40–66. We will accept the traditional view that the whole book is the work of one person.
(For other help, see "An Introduction to the Old Testament." E.J. Young. Eerdmans,’60; p.215–225.)
Isa.40 has no immediate reference point, has mysterious voices, and emphasizes the vastness of God. It is divided into two parts:1–11 and 12–29.
40:1–2 A peace, a comfort for Jerusalem is promised, with iniquity pardoned and double indemnity paid. When would such a peace come? Jesus said His First Coming was Israel's lost opportunity. "The things that make for peace are hid from your eyes." (Lk.19:42).
When will another such time for peace come? Probably at Christ's Second Advent.
40:3–5 "A voice crying in the wilderness" to prepare the way of the Lord is quoted of John the Baptist in all four Gospels. (Matt.3:3; Lk.3:4; Mk 1:3; Jn.1:23)
The glory of the Lord is revealed during Christ's first advent. "We beheld His glory, glory as of the only-begotten Son from the Father." (Jn.1:14)
But the promise that "All flesh shall see it together" remains for the second advent.
"Behold He comes with the clouds and every eye will see Him, everyone who pierced Him and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of Him." (Rev.1:7)
40:6–8 A sobering note is introduced in the middle of this joyous section. Humans are like the grass and its flowers, fading, and dying when God blows them away. The word of God does abide for ever. But why is it said here, and what is the connection of the word of God to human beings?
Peter quotes the passage and helps us to interpret it.
"You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for 'All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord abides for ever.' That word is the good news which was preached to you." (IPet.1:23–25)
So Peter interprets Isaiah to say that that which is born of the flesh fades and dies, but that which is born of the Word of God abides forever. The seed is the Word of God. So we have another reference to Christ as the Sower of the seed in His First Advent, planting seed which generates new life, life that lasts forever.
40:9 Behold your God! The Gospel is good tidings of great joy. John the Baptist cried out "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (Jn.1:29)
40:10–11 "The Lord God comes with might, his arm ruling, his reward with Him." Coming with might and rule is part of the Second Advent. His reward is an uncommon idea. "He shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied." "Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great and he shall divide the spoil with the strong...."(Isa.53:11,12). We are the fruit of His travail, the reward part of His first advent.
In summary, Isa.40:1–11 contains 6–7 references to Christ. It is a strongly Messianic passage. The rest of the chapter is a striking contrast. It is built around the answers to seven rhetorical questions, most of which start with "Who" or "to Whom".
40:12 Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand or marked off the heavens with a span? Given the surface of a sphere = 4πR squared; the radius of the earth = 6378 Km.; the seas are 70% of the earth's surface; the average depth of the sea is perhaps 6 Km. Then we find some 1.4×1018 cubic meters of water on the globe.
The distance to the edge of the known universe is 10–20 billion light years away, something like 1026 meters. God laid out the heavens as a milliner stretches out a bolt of cloth.
40:13 Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord or taught Him knowledge? No one.
40:14 The nations are like fine dust on a balance, like a drop in the bucket. If we have a 5 gallon bucket, a drop is about a millionth of what the bucket can hold.
40:16 Lebanon's trees for fuel and all its animals in sacrifice would not be enough for a burnt offering to be offered to God.
40:18 Is God like an idol?
40:22 Have you not heard that God sits on the circle of the earth and views people as mere insects?
40:23 He brings down princes, blows on them and they are gone.
40:25 Who is like God? He knows all the stars by name. There are estimated to be 1011 galaxies, and 1022 stars! And nothing is missing.
40:27 Judah whines: God doesn't know or care about me. The answer is a final question: have you not heard that the everlasting God does not grow faint or weary? He gives strength and energy to the weak and faint. Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength. Our strength is in the cellular metabolism of our bodies.
Two strong messages are taught. First, God is immense, all-powerful, transcendent ("beyond the boundaries of any category"— Webster), beyond our comprehension, as the astronomical numbers are beyond our comprehension. Comparatively, human beings, even nations, are nothing in size and importance.
The second message is that paradoxically, God is also immanent— ("operating within the subject concerned", Webster)—-directly involved in the energy needs of those humans who belong to Him. "Renewing our strength" is improving our cell metabolism. He governs cells, giving them energy. He is as involved in the biochemistry of the cell— (1/1000th of an inch ~10 micron— in diameter)—as He is in control of the stars.
How can God be both transcendent—immense and far away—and yet immanent—tending to the needs of our bodies? The answer in part is given in 40:1–11: Christ among us in His incarnation is God Immanent. He lived among us, observed our ways in detail, listened to our talk, observed our dumbness, felt our pains, knew hunger, thirst, and fatigue, finally suffering death. He now literally "operates within the subject concerned", abiding with, indwelling us as individual persons.
The instruction of the passage? Wait on the Lord. That is not idleness or indecision. It is active, attentive listening for the voice of God. "Your ears shall hear a word behind you saying, 'This is the way, walk in it.'"(Isa.30:21)
It is all too wonderful to be comprehended. But walk.