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Isaiah 40:21-31

The Bad Guys Are Winning” That was the cover story of The Atlantic magazine not long ago. It highlighted the alarming ascendance of authoritarian leaders and regimes in many countries of the world, including Turkey, China, Russia, the Philippines, and others. The tyrannical pattern includes an autocratic leader, surrounded by loyal legislators, in control of the military, the police and the media, creating near absolute control over the populace. In some cases, these leaders are elected by popular vote. Why would citizens prefer this political arrangement? The reasons are complex. Perhaps the people fear real or perceived threats from enemies within and without. Perhaps they believe authoritarian regimes can restore a nation to its former glory or elevated status in the international community. Or maybe it just comes down to the simple hope that the economy will be better, at least in the short term, making daily life a bit less burdensome.


Though the geopolitical situation at the time of Isaiah’s writing was vastly different from our day, there was one striking similarity—human beings were always tempted to put their trust in the rulers of earthly kingdoms. The Persian Empire at the time of King Cyrus has been called “the first global superpower.” The empire included all of what is now Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and beyond. King Cyrus showed benevolence his predecessors lacked. He was known for respecting the local culture and religious beliefs of the inhabitants of the lands he conquered. He even issued the edict proclaiming that exiled Jews could return to their homeland and rebuild the Temple.


But too many Jews, who had spent their entire lives in Babylonian captivity, decided that their existence under the new Persian king was actually quite tolerable and weren’t inclined to return to the land of Judah. Those who joined the pilgrimage back home were just a trickle, not a stream. So, Isaiah appeals to his people on the basis of the transitoriness of kings and kingdoms. Despite the impressive power and reach of the Persian Empire, it is, like all human kingdoms, a house of cards.





The Prophet writes,


“He who sits above the circle of the earth, . . .brings princes to naught    and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,    scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,when he blows upon them, and they wither,    and the tempest carries them off like stubble.”    (40:22a, 23-34)


Isaiah is comparing the sovereign rule of King Cyrus to newly sprouted grass that will shrivel and be blown away by the harsh wind of history.


In verse 25, God speaks: “To whom will you compare me, then, or who is my equal? says the Holy One.”


As evidence of the incomparable power and infinite creativity of Yahweh, Isaiah points to the heavens:


“Lift up your eyes on high and see:    Who created these?He who brings out their host and numbers them,    calling them all by name;because he is great in strength,    mighty in power,    not one is missing.”     (40:26)


He “stretches out the heavens like a curtain    and spreads them like a tent to live in.”     (40:22b)


In the Hebrew mind, the tapestry of God’s creation was the most convincing testimony to the surpassing greatness of God. Their ancient cosmology imagined the sky to be a canopy upon which God placed the multitude of stars to dazzle the night. Modern astronomy presents us with an understanding of interstellar space that is more mind-boggling than Isaiah could imagine. Launched on Christmas Day, 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope was placed in solar orbit nearly one million miles from earth. This telescope is peering into the history of the universe, observing light from stars that was emitted over 13 billion years ago. It can produce pictures of nebulae where new stars are being born. It is showing us that the curtain of the heavens is infinitely grander than our minds can fathom.


Isaiah’s appeal is forceful and direct: Who are you going to trust? The earthly ruler whose kingdom will be blown away like dust or the One who spoke the starry heavens into existence? Where will you let down the full weight of your life?


Authoritarian governments depend on the lie that the deepest human needs can be met by political systems. Propaganda works, especially when enforced by violence. When the Roman Empire demanded its subjects declare “Caesar is Lord!” the Christian proclamation that “Jesus is Lord!” was an affront to imperial power. It was equivalent to saying, “The emperor has no clothes!” It was (and is) a way of exposing the lie of earthly kingdoms. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian dissident who exposed the brutality of the Russian gulag, famously said, “One man who stopped lying could bring down a tyranny.”


Isaiah was that man! He called out the pretense of earthly rulers and pointed the people toward their true source of security—Yahweh God. If God was using King Cyrus as God’s instrument of liberation for the captives, the glory belonged to God, not to Cyrus. So, do not be afraid of pilgrimage. The Lord does not grow weary, and he is able to strengthen the powerless. If we wait in hope for the Lord, our strength will be renewed like the eagle, rising on currents of wind.


I believe these verses had direct application to the Hebrews who were being e