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Isaiah 43:16-21


Christians have sometimes called the book of Isaiah the fifth Gospel. That label becomes more appropriate as we leave behind the darker shades of Isaiah 1-39 and enter the brighter light of chapters 40-66. Scholars are divided over questions of the unity of Isaiah and its authorship. These debates should not obscure the hope that shines through especially in the second portion of the book, words of comfort and promise for a people whose difficult circumstances could easily have lead them to ask: “Where is our God when we need God the most?”

Broader context

The consolation introduced in 40:1 – “Comfort, O comfort my people says your God” – sets a gracious tone for the chapters that follow. Yet amidst reassuring words appears a warning against idolatry (40:18-20, 42:17), a reminder that God refuses to be one god among others. The help that God provides is a decisive demonstration of God’s superior power and authority: “Who has performed and done this, calling the generations from the beginning? I the LORD am first and will be with the last” (41:4). The servant of the Lord (42:1-4) – understood as the people of God, faithful to God alone (43:10) – is to be filled with God’s spirit, an instrument of compassion and justice.

Isaiah 43 opens with a promise for a people who have been anything but faithful. They were in Babylon (43:14) – far from their homeland – chastened by the LORD. Yet even in this difficult situation, God still loved them and had not abandoned them. Despite floods and fire, God promised deliverance, declaring: “For I am the LORD your God, the holy one of Israel, your Savior” (43:3a). Likewise, God’s faithfulness does not depend upon our fidelity, yet God patiently calls us back to a place of faithful devotion, disciplining us as sons and daughters (Hebrews 12:6). There are no gods other than God, no Savior besides the LORD (43:11). Our allegiance is due to God alone, the One whose presence and power can never be limited by mere human geographical boundaries (43:14). We can trust the One who is the LORD, the Holy One, the Creator of Israel and our King (43:15).

Understanding Isaiah 43:16-21

Divine authority clothes the opening words of v. 16: “Thus says the LORD.” The phrase calls the listener to rapt attention. What does God want to say to the people God has chosen? The LORD begins with a glance at mighty deeds in the past. Verses 16-17 evoke the Exodus, the Story that Jews for centuries had passed down from father to son, from mother to daughter. God had made a way when there seemed to be no way of escape. Instead of suffering destruction at the hand of Pharaoh, God acted. The Hebrews passed on dry land between the parted waters of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:22), crossing before God brought the waters crashing down upon Egyptian chariots, horses, and warriors.

The passage takes a surprising turn beginning with v. 18. Whereas God had made dry what was wet, now God will do a “new thing” (v. 19a). God will perform the opposite miracle from days of old. This time, the LORD will make wet what was dry: “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (v. 19b).

Water can be a biblical symbol for life (John 4:14, 7:38). God desires to quench the thirst of all that God has created, including wild animals. In Isaiah’s vision, jackals and ostriches join in the chorus of praise, honoring the Creator God (v. 20a). Yet folded into this broader sympathy for what God has made is a more focused concern, God’s love for “my chosen people” (v. 20b).

The LORD does not create for the sake of creating. If jackals and ostriches honor God, how much more should the people whom God has formed as God’s own possession (v. 21a)? Our raison d’être is to declare the praises of God (v. 21b).

From text to sermon

This week’s text (as understood in its context) makes strong affirmations about the attributes and character of God:

1) God is not a localized, limited deity. The prophet repeatedly reminded the people of God that the LORD is not like other so-called gods (2:20-21, 42:17, 44:15). God declared: “For your sake I will send to Babylon and break down all the bars, and the shouting of the Chaldeans will be turned to lamentation” (43:14). The God of Israel is not a god limited to a territory or sphere of influence. When God said “I will send to Babylon”, God was encroaching upon the turf of Babylonian gods such as Anu, believed to be one of the four creator gods, the god of sky and ruler of all the gods. Yet there was no consultation between the LORD or any other so-called god, no permission sought to act in Babylon. Isaiah’s is an affirmation of the LORD’s wide-ranging power among the nations and unique status as God.

2) Divine correction is restorative. God will not punish for the sake of punishing. The LORD desired to do a “new thing” (v. 19a). Though discipline is never enjoyable, on the other side of discipline lies a place of renewed relationship: “I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (v. 25). From a New Testament perspective, we believe that Christ can transform even the worst offender, where “everything has become new” (2 Cor. 5:17).

3) God was faithful in the past and will not abandon us now. We have all experienced times of “exile” when it seems God has abandoned us. In the face of their lowest moment as a people, Isaiah reminded them to remember the Exodus. And so we must reflect upon and recount to our children our own deliverance stories. Because God in Christ has done mighty deeds in our lives in times gone by, we trust God for new things. We have confidence that our Lord Jesus walks beside us even in dry desert moments and sustains us, giving us his living water to drink.