The ancient city of Nineveh was located on the east bank of the Tigris River near the site of the modern city of Mosul in northern Iraq. Nineveh was an important junction for commercial routes crossing the Tigris on the great highway between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean, thus uniting the East and the West. It received wealth from many sources, so that it became one of the greatest of all the region’s ancient cities, and the capital of the Assyrian Empire.
According to the Bible, Nineveh was established in about 2000 BC (a round number) by Nimrod, a great-grandson of Noah (Gen. 10:11). It or Assyria are mentioned in the Bible books of Psalms 83 (~980BC), Jonah (~750BC), Hosea (~720BC), 2 Kings 19 (~700BC), Isaiah (~700BC), Micah (~700BC), Zephaniah (~630BC) and Nahum (~620BC). The Assyrian kings mentioned in the Bible reigned between 745BC and 627BC.
As Assyria is only mentioned in a list of nine enemies, it seems that it wasn’t a major threat to Israel in the 10th century BC (Ps. 83:5-8). But from 900 to 600 BC the Assyrian Empire expanded, conquered and ruled the Middle East, including Mesopotamia, Egypt, the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, and parts of today’s Turkey, Iran and Iraq. They were famous for their cruelty and fighting prowess and they used war chariots and iron weapons, which were superior to bronze weapons.
Assyria is not known to have come in contact with Israel until the reign of Jehu, who paid tribute to Shalmaneser II in 842BC. But Assyria was a major enemy of Israel and Judah in the 8th century BC. According to the Bible, the Assyrians threatened and attacked the kingdoms of Israel and Judah from ~790BC (2 Ki. 15:19) to ~710BC (2 Ki. 20:6) and to ~690BC (2 Chron. 33:11).
The Assyrians invaded the kingdom of Israel and after the fall of Samaria in 722BC, they brought people from Mesopotamia and Aram (Syria) to settle in Samaria (Ezra 4:2). God used the Assyrians to capture the kingdom of Israel.
Sennacherib nearly captured Jerusalem in 700BC but “the angel of the Lord went out and put to death 185,000 in the Assyrian camp” (2 Ki. 19:35) followed by the assassination of Sennacherib (2 Ki. 18:13 – 19:37; Isa. 36-37).
But in 612BC Nineveh was destroyed by the Babylonians (Ezek. 32:22-23). And the Assyrian empire then came to an end by 605 BC when they were defeated by the Babylonians in the battle of Carchemish.
As the word “Nineveh” occurs most frequently in the books of Jonah (7 times ) and Nahum (9 times), we will now look at their messages.
In about 750BC, God sent Jonah to Nineveh to warn it of the imminent danger of divine judgment. Jonah was commanded, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me” (Jon. 1:1NIV). Nineveh was called a “great city” because it was the largest city if its day, having more than 120,00 inhabitants (Jon. 4:11). But Jonah went in the opposite direction and went through a bad experience! After God got his attention, he was told again, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you” (Jon. 3:2). This time he obeyed and went to Nineveh and proclaimed “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jon. 3:4). Then all the people, including the king repented of their wicked ways (see Appendix). After this God “relented and did not bring on them the destruction He had threatened” (Jon. 3:10). This shows that God’s mercy can extend to all people. The repentance of wicked Gentiles was an example for the Israelites to follow.
Jonah was angry that God showed compassion to the Assyrians who lived in Nineveh. But later God told Judah, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live” (Ezek. 33:11).
We know from history that Nineveh continued for about 140 years before it was destroyed by the Babylonians. So, God’s mercy was shown for 140 years before justice prevailed.
But a while after Jonah’s warning, the people of Nineveh returned to their wicked ways of idolatry, cruelty and pride. The sins of Nineveh included plotting evil against the Lord, cruelty and plundering in war, prostitution, witchcraft, and commercial exploitation (Nah. 1:11; 2:12-13; 3:1, 4, 16, 19).
The book of Nahum, written in about 620BC, is comprised of detailed predictions of the destruction of Nineveh. It says, that God “will not leave the guilty [Assyria] unpunished” (Nah. 1:3). The book ends with the destruction of the city for her oppression, cruelty, idolatry and wickedness. Nahum predicted that the city would never be rebuilt, “Nothing can heal you [Nineveh]; your wound is fatal” (Nah. 3:19). Nineveh was destroyed in 612BC and never rebuilt and within a few centuries it was covered with wind-blown sand. Zephaniah also predicted the Babylonian invasion of Assyria “leaving Nineveh utterly desolate and dry as the desert” (Zeph. 2:13-15). Even the site of Nineveh was lost until it was found by archaeologists in 1845.
Prior to Jonah and Nahum, in about 740-680BC, Isaiah also predicted the demise of Assyria.
Isaiah said that God would use the Assyrians to devastate the land of Judah as punishment for their sinfulness (Isa. 7:17-25; 10:5-6). And Aram (Syria) and Israel would be invaded as well (Isa. 8:6-10). And that’s what happened in the late 8th century BC.
But God promised to destroy the Assyrians because of their arrogance (Isa. 10:5-34; 14:24-27; 30:27-33; 31:8-9; 37:36-38). And that’s what happened in about 610BC.
Archaeology of Nineveh
In about 700 BC, Sennacherib made Nineveh a truly magnificent city. At this time, the total area of Nineveh comprised about 7 square kilometres (1,730 acres), and fifteen great gates penetrated its walls. An elaborate system of eighteen canals brought water from the hills to Nineveh, and several sections of a magnificently constructed aqueduct were discovered at Jerwan, about 65 km (40 miles) distant. Sennacherib also built a magnificent palace with 80 rooms and incredible sculptured walls. Assyrian rulers celebrated their military victories by having representations of these carved into the walls of their palaces.
The ruins of Nineveh are surrounded by the remains of a massive stone and mudbrick wall dating from about 700 BC. About 12 km in length, the wall system consisted of an ashlar (squared building stones) stone retaining wall about 6 m (20 ft) high surmounted by a mudbrick wall about 10 m (33 ft) high and 15 m (49 ft) thick. The stone retaining wall had projecting stone towers spaced about every 18 m (59 ft). The stone wall and towers were topped by three-step merlons (upright sections of a battlement). There were 15 monumental gateways in the city wall.
Archaeologists unearthed the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh with its 22,000 cuneiform inscribed clay tablets in the Akkadian and Sumerian languages and Sennacherib’s annals, which were written on clay hexagonal tablets.
The Bible says that Sennacherib king of Assyria “attacked all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them” (2 Ki. 18:13). This included Lachish, the second largest city in Judah. The Bible also says that Sennacherib’s forces besieged Jerusalem, but didn’t capture it. Instead “he withdrew to his own land in disgrace” (2 Chron. 32:21). This was confirmed by the records in Sennacherib’s annals, which mention his victories, but not his defeats. The historical records of Assyrian kings and their conquests matched the biblical account. These archaeological discoveries showed that the historical accounts in the Bible were about real kingdoms and real historical figures.
When Jesus rebuked the Jewish religious leaders in about AD 30 He said, “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation [the Jewish religious leaders] and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here [Jesus]” (Mt. 12:41; Lk. 11:32). After Jonah preached, the Ninevites repented (Jon.3:5-10). But the Jewish leaders criticized Jesus rather than accepting what He said. Because of this at the coming day of judgment the Ninevites will condemn these Jewish leaders for failing to receive someone who was greater than Jonah. As Jesus and His ministry were “greater than Jonah”, they were more worthy of acceptance.
In Jonah’s time, the people of Nineveh experienced God’s mercy when they repented of their sins. But a later generation experienced God’s judgment because they failed to repent of their sins.
Peter preached to Jews saying, “Repent, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out” (Acts 3:19). Repentance is a change of mind arising from sorrow for sin and leading to transformation of life. It is the right response to Christ’s death and resurrection and leads to forgiveness of sins (Lk. 24:46-47).
A children’s song says,
Repent, and turn to God,
Repent, and turn to God,
Repent, and turn to God,
And your sins will be wiped out.
Doesn’t matter how many,
Doesn’t matter how bad,
Doesn’t matter how often,
Doesn’t matter how sad,
If you turn to God with a heart that’s true,
This is what He says to you.
Repent, and turn to God,
Repent, and turn to God,
Repent, and turn to God,
And your sins will be wiped out.
Today we all have the choice to either experience God’s mercy (salvation and heaven) through Jesus or God’s judgment (punishment and hell) through ignoring or rejecting Jesus. Meanwhile, God is patient, “The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise [to judge the ungodly], as some understand slowness. Instead He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pt. 3:9). God is delaying this judgment to give people more time to repent of their sinfulness. The judgment of God is inescapable unless we repent and are forgiven (Rom. 2:3). But this judgment can be delayed (Rom. 2:4). It’s wise to accept God’s mercy through Jesus, but dangerous to ignore or reject it.
Here we see two contrasting aspects of God’s character, “Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God” (Rom. 11:22). God’s mercy, patience and salvation is an example of His kindness. And God’s justice and judgment is an example of His sternness.
Lessons for us
How would people respond today if someone like Jonah urged them to repent and turn to God? That is what Israel Folau did, and he was criticized, rejected and banished. That’s how the Jewish religious leaders treated Jesus.
Who are we like, the Ninevites or the Jewish religious leaders? The repentance of the Ninevites is an example for us to follow. It also shows that God’s mercy through Jesus extends to everyone. But it’s only available to us while we are alive! Let’s access God’s mercy through Jesus today and avoid God’s coming judgment.
Appendix: When the Ninevites repented (Jonah 3)
1Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”
3 Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. 4 Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” 5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
6 When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. 7 This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:
“By the decree of the king and his nobles:
Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. 8 But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. 9 Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from His fierce anger so that we will not perish.”
10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways [repented], He relented and did not bring on them the destruction He had threatened.
Written, July 2019
Also see other articles on places in the Bible:
Bethlehem, God’s solution to our crises
Gehenna – Where’s hell?
Babylon, center of humanism and materialism
Lessons from Egypt
Lessons from Sodom
Massacres and miracles in Jericho
Rebellion and deception at Samaria
All languages contain figures of speech where words have a figurative meaning instead of the literal one. The same is true for the Bible. It’s important to correctly recognize figurative language so we don’t treat figurative language as though it were literal, or treat literal language as though it were figurative.
The passage “by his wounds you have been healed” is mentioned in Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 2:24. What does it mean? From the context, “his wounds” refers to Christ’s suffering on the cross. Does it mean that through Christ’s death we can be miraculously healed from illness or injury? Or does it mean something else?
This passage is also alluded to in Deuteronomy 32:39NIV: “There is no god besides me. I (God) put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand”.
This verse is a part of the song of Moses which deals with the punishment of the nations which God used to punish Israel. Here God is shown to be sovereign over the nations. He can destroy them (“put to death”) and create them (“bring to life”). He can judge them (“wound”) and restore them (“heal”). So in this context, the word “heal” is used as a figure of speech for restoring the fortunes of a nation. It has nothing to do with recovering from an illness or injury.
We will now look at Isaiah 53:5, followed by 1 Peter 2:24.
The Hebrew word nirpa (Strongs #7495), which is translated “heal”, is mentioned in six verses in the book of Isaiah. According to the Appendix, in 80% (4/5) of these verses, the word “heal” is used as a figure of speech. So what does it mean in the other verse, Isaiah 53:5? Is it figurative or literal?
Isaiah prophesied and wrote in Judea in about 700BC when there was great wickedness and idolatry amongst the Judeans. There are four “servant songs” in the book of Isaiah in which the servant is the promised Messiah (Isa. 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13 – 53:12). The fourth song describes a servant who would experience suffering and exaltation. Isaiah 53:5 is set in the following context.
4 Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Here the servant endured: pain, suffering, punishment, striking, affliction, piercing, crushing, and wounding. This punishment was from God and in this way the servant took the punishment that “we” deserve for “our” transgressions, iniquities and sin (v.10, 12). In this context the “we” and “our” were the faithful remnant of Judah (Isa. 10:20-23; 11:11; 37:31-32; 46:3). The result is that they experience peace and healing and justification (v.11). Their problem was that they “had gone astray” (v.6). They had sinned and transgressed the law of Moses. There is no mention of illness or injury. So in this verse “healed” means forgiveness of their sins and transgressions, not physical healing. According to the NET version, “Healing is a metaphor for forgiveness here”. It’s a spiritual healing, not a physical one. Brown-Driver-Briggs says that its figurative and addressing a nation or city like Babylon (Jer. 17:14). This means that the word “heal” is used as a figure of speech in 83% (5/6) of the verses where it is mentioned in the book of Isaiah.
In 1 Peter
The Greek word iaomai (Strongs #2390), which is translated “to heal”, is only mentioned once in the books written by Peter (1 Pt. 2:24). Most of the other instances of this word in the New Testament refer to physical healing. The exceptions are:
Acts 28:27, which is a quotation of Isaiah 6:10 in which the phrase “I (God) would heal them” is used as a figure of speech for a spiritual revival (see Appendix).
Hebrews 12:13 “’Make level paths for your feet,’ so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed”. The context of this verse is enduring hardship as God’s discipline (v.3-13). They are encouraged to persevere instead of giving up. The desired outcome is to “share in His (God’s) holiness” (v.10). This is a spiritual solution, not a physical one. So it was a spiritual problem, not a physical one. The “lame” is a weak believer (who had maybe drifted away, Heb. 2:1) and to be “healed” is to be built up, strengthened and restored (instead of stumbled). The NLT says “Mark out a straight path for your feet so that those who are weak and lame will not fall but become strong”. So the words “lame”, “disabled” and “healed” are being used metaphorically in this verse.
So what does “heal” mean in 1 Peter 2:24. This verse is set in the following context:
23 When they hurled their insults at Him [Jesus], He did not retaliate; when He suffered, He made no threats. Instead, He entrusted himself to Him [God the Father] who judges justly. 24 “He himself bore our sins” in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by His wounds you have been healed.” 25 For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
After dealing with submission to authorities, Paul gives the example of Christ’s submission when He suffered for our sins. Then he quotes from Isaiah 53:4-6 to encourage believers to live godly lives: “so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right” (v. 24, NLT). The verse is referring to sin and righteousness, not sickness and disease. Therefore, being “healed” means to be forgiven and saved, not to be physically healed. According to Thayers’ Greek Lexion “by His wounds you have been healed” means “to bring about (one’s) salvation”. It’s a way of saying that Christ’s death brings salvation to those who trust in Him. So, it’s spiritual healing. This is consistent with the finding that Isaiah 53:5 is also addressing spiritual healing, which should be the case as that is the source of the quotation in 1 Peter 2:24.
This study has illustrated how to use the surrounding context to distinguish figurative language from literal language in the Bible. The verses and passages in each book of the Bible are set out in an order determined by God. Don’t try to understand a verse or passage in isolation. Look at the message in the whole book. Look at the message in the same chapter, in the previous chapter and in the following chapter. Look at the message in the verses before and in the verses after. Read it like any other book; don’t just read here and there. Proverbs is the only book of the Bible where the verses aren’t always related to each other.
If a verse is quoted and explained without looking at the surrounding context, there is a danger of eisegesis (an interpretation that is imposed on the biblical text by the reader – it comes from the reader’s preconceived ideas) instead of exegesis (an interpretation that is obtained/derived from the biblical text).
In our everyday language the meaning of the words we use is mainly given by the surrounding context. The same rule applies when interpreting Scripture. It’s not good practice to select verses elsewhere in Scripture (i.e. “cherry picking”) to derive the meaning of a particular verse. Who decides which selection is best? But once the meaning has been explained, it’s OK to look for other passages of Scripture that are consistent with the meaning.
If this passage from Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 2:24 is not relevant to illness and injury, then what is a proper Biblical response to such circumstances? Paul prayed about his health problems, but when it was clear that that weren’t going to be taken away, he knew that God doesn’t promise to remove our ailments and problems (2 Cor. 12:9). Instead God can give us the strength to live with our ailments and problems, because human weakness enables the display of divine power. Like a parent trains their children, God uses suffering for our spiritual development (Heb. 12:4-13). It’s how our self-reliance, pride, and earthly wisdom can be replaced with godliness and a stronger faith. James taught that the purpose of such trials is to develop our endurance, patience and perseverance (Jas. 1:2-3). Because our problems can develop our Christian character, we should accept them joyfully instead of getting angry, complaining, giving up, having self-pity, or believing that God will take them away. That can be a challenge for us!
We have seen that the passage “by his wounds you have been healed” mentioned in Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 2:24 doesn’t mean that through Christ’s death we will be miraculously healed from illness or injury. Instead it means that through Christ’s death our sins can be forgiven and we can be spiritually healed and revived. However, physical healing is promised in future when believers will be resurrected to experience no sickness, pain, suffering, or death (Rev.21:1-4, 22:1-3).
Paul’s response to his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:9), parental training of their children (Heb. 12:4-13), and James’ advice on trials (Jas. 1:2-3) are good examples on how to react to illness or injury.
Appendix: Usage of the word “heal” in Isaiah
The Hebrew word nirpa (Strongs #7495), which is translated “heal”, is mentioned in six verses in the book of Isaiah. We now look briefly at the meaning of this word in five of these verses.
Isa. 6:10b: “Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed”. This verse is in a passage describing the results of Isaiah’s ministry to Judah. The people would be unresponsive (like being deaf and blind) and turn even further from God. It’s opposite to people turning back to God (being repentant). And opposite to a spiritual revival. And opposite to spiritual healing. So the phrase “be healed” is used in this verse as a figure of speech for a spiritual revival.
Isa. 19:22: “The Lord will strike Egypt with a plague; He will strike them and heal them. They will turn to the Lord, and He will respond to their pleas and heal them”. Here the Egyptians are able to pray for deliverance from the plague like the Israelites (1 Ki. 8:35-40). In this verse, the word “heal” is used for physical healing from the plague, which is a disease.
Isa. 30:26: “The moon will shine like the sun, and the sunlight will be seven times brighter, like the light of seven full days, when the Lord binds up the bruises of his people and heals the wounds he inflicted”. This chapter describes Israel relying on political alliances instead of on God, which results in suffering and sorrow. The suffering and sorrow are referred to metaphorically as “bruises” and “wounds”. But they are promised blessing if they repent. The end of their suffering and sorrow is likened to a metaphorical healing. So the word “heals” is used as a figure of speech for a spiritual revival when the Israelites repent to obey God once again.
Isa. 57:18-19: “I have seen their ways, but I will heal them; I will guide them and restore comfort to Israel’s mourners, creating praise on their lips. Peace, peace, to those far and near,” says the Lord. “And I will heal them”. These verses are in a passage where God promises to restore the Israelites who turn away from idolatry. The meaning of the word “heal” is given as to “guide”, to “restore comfort to Israel’s mourners” and to bring “peace”. There is no mention of illness or injury. So the word “heal” is used here as a figure of speech for forgiveness and restoration.
So in 80% (4/5 of these verses, the word “heal” is used as a figure of speech. The other verse that we haven’t considered here is: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed“ (Isa. 53:5). The meaning of “healed” in this verse is discussed above under the heading “In Isaiah”.
Written, February 2017
God’s message for Jews in captivity
In World War 2, 22,000 Australian servicemen were taken captive as prisoners of war (POW) by the Japanese. They went through brutal and horrific experiences, including beatings, starvation, transportation on cramped ships, and long jungle marches in south-east Asia. Many worked on the Burma-Thailand railway. 8,000 (36%) of them died in captivity.
In this post on Isaiah 40 we see that Isaiah told the Jews that their descendants would be POWs. These captives would be discouraged and weary. But if they trusted in God and longed for the fulfilment of His promises, He would give them confidence, comfort and strength.
Isaiah prophesied for 60 years from 740BC to 680BC. During this period Judah was threatened by the Assyrians. In 722BC Assyria conquered the northern kingdom (Israel) and they were taken into captivity. So the southern kingdom of Judah feared the Assyrians.
The book of Isaiah was written to the people of Judah in about 700BC. The oldest copy of Isaiah is one of the Dead Sea Scrolls dated about 200BC. Isaiah has two main sections. Chapters 1-39 describe the Assyrian threat, which was God’s judgement for their idolatry. Chapters 40-55 describe how in 100 years time they will be defeated by the Babylonians and taken captive as prisoners for 70 years and then delivered and restored as a nation.
In chapters 36-37, we read that God saves Jerusalem from the Assyrian army. In chapter 39, King Hezekiah recovers from a serious illness and representatives of the king of Babylon come with a gift. Hezekiah shows them all the wealth of his kingdom. Then Isaiah predicts that this wealth and some of the people will be captured and taken to Babylon. This happened about 100 years later.
In Isaiah 41, Isaiah ridicules the Babylonian idols that the captives were tempted to follow and he predicts that God will raise up Cyrus, king of Persia who will allow the captives to return to Judea. This happened 170 years after the prediction was made. So chapter 40 is framed before and after by accounts of the Jewish captivity in Babylon. It is addressed to those in exile. As a promise of deliverance from captivity, it aims to encourage and strengthen them when they are discouraged, tired and weak.
Note that Isaiah 40 has a poetic structure and that prophecies like this can have multiple fulfilments. We will look at what it meant to those in captivity and how it can apply to us today.
God’s promise (v.1-11)
In this section God promises to deliver His people from captivity. Verse 2 mentions the Jews “hard service has been completed” and their “sin has been paid for”. This refers to their slavery in Babylon. They would have been discouraged and weary because the exile lasted for 70 years. But now they had been fully punished for their sins (received double). They needed comfort and encouragement and that is the theme of this chapter (v.1). “Comfort, comfort” means great comfort. The message of deliverance would give them encouragement, comfort and hope.
In verses 3-5 they are told to “prepare the way for the Lord” by building a highway in the desert so “the glory of the Lord will be revealed” in their deliverance from exile in Babylon. This highway is a figure of speech for repentance and dealing with the sinful things in life that needed to be straightened out. The promise is that the Lord is returning to Jerusalem when the Jews return to Judea. Nations will be amazed when this happens and realize that the Jews have a great God. It’s unusual for a conquered nation to be resurrected like that.
Then there is a contrast between the temporary and the permanent (v.6-8). It says people are like grass and flowers. They wither and fall, but God’s word endures forever. When it was written they were afraid of the Assyrians. But the Assyrian threat will pass. When they were in exile they were ruled by the Babylonians. But the Babylonian rule will pass. This is repeated in v.23-24, where he says that rulers of this world are temporary and will soon vanish. For them it meant that the power of Assyria and Babylonia would soon vanish. On the other hand, God’s word is permanent (Mt. 24:35). Also, because humans fail, their only hope comes from the eternal word of God.
Next they hear the good news of deliverance from Babylon (v.9-11). It’s like another exodus. This is a prediction of what was to happen about 170 years later. God “comes with power” in the form of the Persians who conquer the Babylonians (v.10). The reward of those who were faithful to the Lord is that they could return to their homeland. God is a ruler that cares for them like a shepherd cares for his sheep.
“He gathers the lambs in His arms
and carries them close to His heart;
He gently leads those that have young” (v.11)
So even though God’s people are in a bad place in captivity in a foreign land, God promises to care for them and bring them safely back to their homeland. That’s the comfort and encouragement mentioned in v.1. This Hebrew word (Strongs #5162) is used elsewhere in Isaiah to describe their deliverance from exile (Is. 49:13; 51:12; 52:9).
In June 2014 the Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste was sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood and spreading false news that defamed Egypt. Two other journalists were also imprisoned. They were framed as terrorists and spies. But all denied the charges against them and said their trial was a sham and that they were simply reporting the news. When they were about to begin a hunger strike, there was great joy in February 2015 when Peter was released after spending 400 days in an Egyptian jail. Deliverance is good news!
The Bible says that the glory of the Lord (v.5) is also revealed at Christ’s first and second advent (Lk. 2:9; Rev. 1:7). John the Baptist applied v.3 (“prepare the way for the Lord”) to himself when he told the people to prepare for the Messiah by repenting of their sins (Mt. 3:1-8; Mk. 1:2-8; Lk. 3:2-17; Jn. 1:23). Are we prepared for Christ’s return? Have we confessed and repented of our sins?
Do we have a sense of the temporary and the permanent? The troubles of this life are temporary, while the promises of heaven are permanent. Do we live as though God’s word endures forever? Peter uses this passage to say that the new spiritual life is eternal (1 Pt. 1:23-25).
Are we in a bad place? If we trust in God, He will care for us and bring us safely to be with Him in heaven.
But how do the captives know that God can do what He promised?
God’s greatness (v.12-26)
Next they are given three examples of God’s greatness. This section has many rhetorical questions to persuade the people to trust in the Lord.
First, He is a great creator (v. 12). He made and controls the oceans, the stars and planets, the earth’s surface including the dust, the mountains and hills. Isaiah uses personification saying that God measures the oceans in the hollow of His hand and measures the universe with the breadth of His hand. And God weighs the mountains and hills.
God made the earth and the stars (v.21-26). This should be obvious to the Jews because they have the account of creation in Genesis. So God rebukes them,
“Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood since the earth was founded?” (v.21).
He’s saying, are you dull? Don’t you understand? He reminded them of something they already knew.
Who created all the stars (v.26)? It must be someone who existed before the stars. It must be God Himself. Who controls them? He guides the stars in their paths across the sky. He knows each by name and “because of His great power and mighty strength” none of them go missing!
God creates and sustains without outside help (v. 13-14). He is the ultimate cause; no one instructed or taught Him, and no one else can understand what He does (Rom. 11:33-34; 1 Cor. 2:16). He has incredible wisdom.
The second example of God’s greatness is that the other nations are insignificant compared to God (v.15-17). And all the forests of Lebanon aren’t sufficient fuel and all its animals inadequate for a worthy burnt offering to Him.
The third example is that God is greater than any man-made idol (v.18-20). He says they are useless. The rich make them out of gold and silver, while the poor use wood. He uses satire and sarcasm. Saying they are made by craftsmen, who need to make sure they don’t topple over. An idol can’t even stand up by itself! Instead, God is incomparable. There is no one like Him.
In those days people believed that when one nation was conquered by another, the gods of the conqueror were stronger than the gods of the vanquished. Some of the Jews in exile may have thought the gods of Babylon were stronger than their God. So God asks them, “to whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” (v.25). The answer is no-one.
At that time the pagan nations worshipped the sun, moon and stars (Is. 47:13). The Jews also began to worship these as gods (2 Ki. 17:16; 21: 3, 5; Jer. 19:13). But here they are being told that their God is greater than these gods, because He made them!
The Sun is a star, and life on Earth depends on this powerful source of energy. It’s the greatest power in our solar system. Every second, the sun radiates a million times more energy than the entire United States consumes in a year. Quasars are among the brightest and most powerful objects in the universe. They can emit enormous amounts of energy, up to a thousand times the total output of the hundreds of billions of stars in our entire galaxy. But God is even more powerful!
Do we marvel at the wonders of the physical world? Do we believe that God is the ultimate cause? The greatest creator and sustainer?
Do we know what our idols are? What’s our perception of them? What influence do they have? Do they rule our lives?
But the captives think that God has forgotten them while they are in exile in Babylon (v.27). They are discouraged and wonder if God still cares for them. So they complain.
God strengthens the weary (v.27-31)
So God rebukes them once again,
“Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and His understanding no one can fathom.” (v.28).
Once again He’s saying, are you dull? Don’t you understand? This is said to those who don’t trust God. It’s Hebrew poetry where two lines are often grouped together to express one thought.
They needed to know that …
“The LORD is the everlasting God”.
He’s different to the man-made idols you see in Babylon. They are temporary; but He is permanent. He existed before everything else existed. He is a unique God.
“(He’s) the Creator of the ends of the earth”. He created all the earth. He won’t forsake what He has made.
“He will not grow tired or weary”. He’s not like us. He doesn’t get tired and weary. He hadn’t forgotten them. No problems are hidden from God, or too much for Him to handle.
“His understanding no one can fathom”. No one can understand like God (Rom. 11:33). He’s in a totally different realm to us. His ways are right, even though we don’t know or understand them.
Next he promises new strength for those who trusted God. Because of God’s attributes, “He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak” (v.29). Those who trust in Him are strengthened when they are weary and empowered when they are weak as was the case for the captives. Because He cares for the stars, He also cares for His people.
“Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.” (v.30-31).
“Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall”. As human beings we all get tired and weary. We run out of energy. We all can stumble and fall. There are times when we can’t go on. Our human resources are used up. We need rest. We need sleep.
“but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength”. The Hebrew word translated “hope”, is translated “wait” or “trust” in other translations. That’s the key word for God’s promises in Isaiah 40. It means an eager and confident expectation. These Jews in Babylon were ready to start the journey when the time came. They were waiting to be released, but they didn’t know exactly when it would be. God gives spiritual strength to those who trust in Him. They are empowered by the Holy Spirit. They are given the strength and power required for the day and the task.
“They will soar on wings like eagles”. It takes lots of energy to fly. In fact we can’t do it without using the power of the wind or an engine. God can help us get through a challenging day or task.
“They will run and not grow weary”.
Running takes less energy than flying, but more energy than walking. God can help us get through a busy day or task.
“They will walk and not be faint”. Walking takes less energy than running. God can help us get through a normal day or task.
What did this mean to the Jewish exiles in Babylon? They would have been tired of living in a foreign country under foreign rulers. But it was a long journey back to their homeland. Ezra took four months to travel the 1,400 km (880 miles) (Ezra 7:8-9). That’s about 12km per day. It’s walking pace. They would have thought, how can the weary and weak travel this far? The weary and weak would have included the elderly, the sick, and the disabled. Was it worth travelling so far from a civilised country where they had learnt a new language and a new way of life to a city in ruins? This would encourage them to look forward to returning to their homeland. And whether they travelled fast or slow, God would empower them on the journey.
We have seen how the Jews were encouraged spiritually when they were tired and weak. What about us? Do we live as though we have an “everlasting God” who always cares for us and doesn’t get tired or weary? And who doesn’t forget.
If we trust in God, He will care for us and help when we are in need. Do we seek His supernatural power and strength when we are weary and weak? Jesus told His followers to “always pray and not give up” (Lk. 18:1).
Paul said that because of the hope of our resurrection to be with the Lord, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). Although we may be tired and weak and our health may fail, the Holy Spirit renews us inwardly each day.
The writer of Hebrews urges us to fix our eyes on Jesus “so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb. 12:1-3).
Did you know that God encourages us so we can encourage others? “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (2 Cor. 1:3-4)
More good news
I mentioned that prophecies like this can have multiple applications and fulfilments.
What was the impact on the Jews when they first heard it in 700BC? The Biblical principle is the same – if they trusted in God and longed for the fulfilment of His promises, He would give them confidence, comfort and strength. But the application is different. They were still in Jerusalem before the captivity. Their response could be to repent of their idolatrous ways in order to try to prevent the exile. But they could be confident that as God’s people, even if they went into captivity God would bring them back to their homeland.
The idea of deliverance from captivity is used in the New Testament where the Greek word for “good news” or “gospel” is used to describe deliverance from being slaves to sin (Acts 13:32; 1 Cor. 15:1-4). Here good news (v.9) is applied to the salvation that Christ brings to those who trust him.
So although we live in a different era to Isaiah, we are also promised deliverance from suffering. In our case it’s the suffering due to sin and heaven is the promise. As the Jews looked forward to returning to Jerusalem (or Zion) where God was present in the temple, we can look forward to being with the Lord Jesus in heaven. Do we look forward to our deliverance?
Although there is a similarity, there is also a difference. They took the full punishment for their sins in Babylon (v.2), but Jesus took the full punishment for our sins at His crucifixion.
So the principle for us is that if we trust in God and long for the fulfilment of His promises, He will give us confidence, comfort and strength.
Isaiah 40 finishes with,
“those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint”
We have seen from Isaiah’s prophecy that when the Jews were in captivity, God promises deliverance. It’s good news from an everlasting all-powerful God that encourages and strengthens those that are tired, weak and weary. And they look forward eagerly to their deliverance.
Today God also promises His people deliverance from the sufferings of this sinful world when they get to heaven. In the meantime, with God’s spiritual strength, we can face whatever lies ahead of us.
Let’s remember that if we trust in God and long for the fulfilment of His promises, He will give us confidence, comfort and strength.
Written, August 2015