top of page

Isaiah 40:21-31

Prophets are often referred to or understood as “seers.” Sometimes, prophets see future events taking place, not so much as fortune-tellers, but as those who have a God-inspired insight into where the people’s actions will take them. In this text, this prophetic author sees the root of an exiled people’s fear.

Most scholars understand the section of Isaiah from chapter 40 on as “Deutero-Isaiah” or “second-Isaiah.” In other words, these chapters were not likely from the same prophet that spoke the words written down in chapters 1-39. One of the reasons for this is that most of second-Isaiah was written during the end of the Babylonian Exile. Much of chapters 40-66 is the author’s attempt to convince all of God’s people in Babylon to return to the Promised Land.

We need to place ourselves in the shoes of those Israelites who have spent most of their lives in Babylon. When we think of Babylonian Exile, we shouldn’t think of imprisonment or concentration camps so much as homesickness and the feeling of abandonment. Israel is offered the opportunity to return home. The prophet is writing to convince the people that they should return. But, if you’ve lived most or all of your life in Babylon, you’ve likely settled down. You may be comfortable and even have a high-ranking job. The new ruler in town, Cyrus, and the Persians don’t seem so bad. And if you are convinced that it would be better to go to your homeland, you’d likely be nervous about doing so. The God who is supposedly the God of your people has, in your mind, abandoned you and your people. If you tried to return, who would keep you safe on the road? Who would be there to ensure that the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple goes well?

These are undoubtedly reasonable concerns, and the prophet sets to work to write an “apologia for YHWH.”[1]What this prophet sees is at the root of the people’s fear: temporality versus eternality. It is not in a dualistic sense, as if these two realities compete against each other, but in the limited view that the people have when God’s eternality and God’s mission are not considered.

The people of God have a purpose and mission, and it is tied deeply to the land that God gave them. The prophet calls the people to come out of this land where they have been exiled and return home. The people seem to be tempted by the possibility of forgetting their identity and land and remaining in the foreign land they have known most of their lives. This is temporal, material, present, and would be safest. But it also is placing their hope in the earthly prince and ruler (v. 23). They don’t have hope in their God.

Into these doubts, the prophet speaks these questions with a pastoral heart and a preacher’s voice: 

21Have you not known? Have you not heard?                        Has it not been told you from the beginning?                        Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?

The prophet writes a poem exclaiming the eternal power that is the God of Israel. Compared to this God, princes and rulers, powers and principalities cannot stand. Then comes my favorite part:

24Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,                        scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,            when [Yahweh] blows upon them, and they wither,                        and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

From the heavenly vantage point that the prophet has, it’s bonkers for the people to choose anyone other than Yahweh as their king, anywhere other than Israel as their home. While the people’s experience had been one “in which powerful foreign kings and rulers had in effect been able to intervene on Israel’s affairs for a long time,”[2] the prophet calls the people to put their hope in Yahweh their God saying:

27Why do you say, O Jacob,                        and speak, O Israel,            “My way is hidden from the LORD,                        and my right is disregarded by my God”? 28Have you not known? Have you not heard?            The LORD is the everlasting God,                        the Creator of the ends of the earth.

These statements by Israel are not statements of ignorance about God; they are statements that come from a feeling of abandonment. God, in the people’s experience, has turned aside from them and disregarded their “right” (translated “cause” in the NIV. Hebrew: mishpat;literally justice or judgment).

But their God is the “everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.” And you who are weary from perceived abandonment must “wait for the LORD” (v. 31). Then comes the verses that long-time church people will know by heart, and perhaps I spoke too soon to claim verse 24 as my favorite part of the poem:

31but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,                      they shall mount up with wings like eagles,            they shall run and not be weary,                        they shall walk and not faint.

Because this last verse is so well known to many Christians, the preacher can tie this verse to the rest of the pericope and the historical context. Some Christian thinkers say that the Church in America either has been or is going into a time of exile. Perhaps this could be a valuable text for us to sit in and call Christian Americans out of their comfortable exile. Maybe we have been in exile in this foreign land that we know as Earthly power and prestige and need to return home to the land that Christ came from and ministered to: the margins of society.


[1] Gilberto Lozano (2020), Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition (Kansas City: Beacon Hill), 49.

[2] Lozano, 51.