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