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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.