To Soar Like An Eagle
To whom, then, will ye liken God? dwell in: Or what likeness will ye compare unto him? The workman melteth and casteth an image, and the goldsmith spreadeth it over with gold and casteth silver chains. He that is so impoverished that he hath no oblation, chooseth a tree that will not rot; he seeketh a skillful workman to prepare a carved image, that whom, then, will ye liken me, or Even the youths shall faint and be shall not be moved. Have ye not known? Have ye not heard? Hath it not been told you from the beginning? Have ye not understood the foundations of the earth? It is he number; he calleth them all by eagles; they shall run, and not be who sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are like grasshoppers; who stretcheth out the heavens like a curtain, and spreadeth them out like a tent to dwell in: Who bringeth the princes to nothing; he maketh the judges of the earth as vanity. Yea, they shall not be planted; yea, they shall not be sown; yea, their stock shall not take root in the earth; and he shall also blow upon them, and they shall wither, and the whirlwind shall take them away like stubble. To whom, then, will ye liken me, or shall I be equal? Saith the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high, and behold who hath created these things, who bringeth out their host by number; he calleth them all by names by the greatness of his might; for he is strong in power. Not one faileth. Why sayest thou, O Jacob, and speakest, O Israel, My way is hidden from the Lord, and the justice due to me is passed away from my God. Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? There is no searching of his understanding. He giveth power to the faint; and to those who have no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall, But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.
Few verses of Scripture have more captivated the mind, encouraged the heart and kept the child of God pressing on in the midst of adversity than the familiar thirty-first verse of Isaiah forty. To soar above the clouds like the eagle–to run in the arena of life and not be weary–to walk in the paths of uncontrollable circumstances and not faint – what incomparable promises of comfort are these.
But what moved the prophet to pen such lofty words? What was the context? What were the circumstances? What historical realities were involved? Only in the understanding of these facts can one fully comprehend these promises and apply them to life’s circumstances.
God had commanded that Israel be comforted (Isa. 40:1-2); she was being held captive in heathen Babylon. He had requested that she repent of her sin to prepare the way for the coming of the King (Isa. 40:3-4); it was her sin which was the root cause of her captivity. He promised that the glory of the Lord would be revealed and all flesh would see it (Isa. 40:5); God’s glory and presence had withdrawn from the Temple before the Babylonian captivity because of Israel’s unfaithfulness. He had revealed that all flesh, like the grass, would wither, and all man’s glory, like the flower of the field, would fade (Isa. 40:6-8); Israel had to be reminded that the glory of Babylon, as impressive as it was, would one day fade like the flower – it was temporal and transient. He had commanded Zion to get up into a high mountain to proclaim, “Behold your God!” (Isa. 40:9); this evangelistic ministry looked prophetically forward to the second coming of the Lord. And finally, God had promised that at His return the wicked would be judged and the righteous rewarded (Isa. 40:10-11); here is a direct reference to the sheep and goat judgment by the Lord at His return as recorded in Matthew 25:31-46. These first eleven verses of Isaiah forty move amazingly from the worst of circumstances to the best of circumstances, from darkness at its blackest to light at its brightest, from captivity and sterile idolatry to freedom and intimate fellowship with the living God.
To Israel, enslaved in Babylon and ensnarled by idolatry, these were lofty promises. But could they be kept? Could the Lord’s return in glory and deliverance of Israel be realized in the midst of the might and glory of Babylon?
To demonstrate the certainty of these comforting words, the prophet dips his pen into the reservoir of God’s character. He reminds his readers that God’s power is infinite (Isa. 40:12), His wisdom is perfect (Isa. 40:13-14), and His sovereignty is absolute (Isa. 40:15–17). What God has promised He will do. Now he is ready to make three crucial points.
I. THE COMPARISON OF GOD TO IDOLS IS FOLLY (Isa. 40:18-20)
The rightful conclusion drawn from verses twelve through seventeen was that the God of Israel is the one matchless and incomparable Being. This leads naturally to a question directed to such of the Israelites as needed to be armed against the seductive power of idolatry, to which the majority of mankind had yielded: “To whom,then, will ye liken God? Or what likeness will ye compare unto him?” (v. 18).
The Jews, captive in Babylon, were at that moment a spiritually starved and disheartened people. For more than fifty years they had been separated from their familiar and beloved Jerusalem. The Temple and altar had perished; the common praise and the national religious fellowship were impossible; the traditional symbols of faith lay far out of sight. But an even more subtle problem existed. The Babylonians had defeated the Israelites on the field of battle. Recent history attested to that fact. And their very hardships in captivity substantiated it. To baser carnal minds, and consistent with contemporary tradition, this could only mean that the gods of the heathen had triumphed over the God of Israel. Instead of seeing their plight as the direct result of their own national sin, they placed the blame on the shoulders of what they viewed as their vanquished and impotent God.
It is not surprising that such thinking, aided by confrontation at every turn with impressive idols and the apparent blessing on the heathen populations with whom they now freely mixed, should have tempted many Jews to feed their starved hearts at the shrines of their conquerors’ gods. It was not that Israel rejected the existence of her God. She never did that, even at her worst moments of apostasy. Rather, some were bringing the gods of Babylon alongside as viable alternatives to Jehovah. They believed that the Babylonian gods possessed greater strength than Jehovah and, therefore, dispensed greater protection and blessing.
Deliberately, therefore, God brings before His wayward people the process of image making to show the utter folly which they were in danger of embracing.
The smith casts an image, and a melter (goldsmith) covers it with gold plates and makes silver chains (v. 19). The chains may be an allusion to the ancient eastern custom of monarchs bedecking themselves with chains of precious metals to be worn as a symbol of wealth and glory, as some commentators suggest. But more likely, the chains were used to fasten the idol to a “nail” on a post in the center of the home. If a man did not have wealth sufficient to have an idol made of gold, he had one carved of a wood that would not rot, and “that shall not be moved” -that is, that will not totter (v. 20). In the case of the idol of gold, it needed a chain to hold it aloft and give it stability. In the case of the idol of wood, it needed a broad base so it would not totter or fall on its face, a frightening prospect thought to be an omen of direct consequence.
What absolute folly, therefore, to liken the infinite in power, all-knowing in wisdom, supremely sovereign God, who fashioned man from the dust of the ground, with idols that men have fashioned and which have no power, wisdom or sovereignty and cannot even sustain themselves in an upright position. Here is deliberate divine ridicule of man’s absurd penchant toward idolatry.
II. THE SUPREMACY OF GOD IS CLEAR (Isa. 40:21-25)
Having demonstrated the stupidity and madness of idolatry, the prophet addresses a series of questions to those Jews who are looking at the option of idolatry with longing eyes, even if they had not already succumbed to it. “Have ye not known? Have ye not heard? Hath it not been told you from the beginning? Have ye not understood from the foundations of the earth?” (v. 21). They did know. They had heard They were told. They did understand.
No less a stellar personality than Moses had warned the nation against idolatry. In a context where he is calling the nation to obedience, he reminds them that when they stood before God at Mount SinaI, “. ..ye came near and stood under the mountain; and the mountain burned with fire unto the midst of heaven, with darkness, clouds, and thick darkness” (Dt. 4:11). It was a solemn, sacred scene. The children of Israel heard the voice of God, but they saw no similitude (Dt. 4:12). There was fire, smoke, the voice of God – but no substance – no visible essence – no physical form. And so Moses makes this important point: Since you did not see God on the day you stood before Him at Sinai, do not make a graven image of man or beast or fowl or fish or anything that creeps upon the earth (Dt 4:15– 18). Idolatry was clearly, in unmistakable terms, placed “off limits” for the children of Israel.
Collectively, through creation, redemptive history and the Mosaic Law, Israel knew what God was like. This truth had been handed down through successive generations. The prophet is not dealing with men who have had no true knowledge of God in the past, or whose intellect questions God’s reality. He is dealing with men who have a national heritage of truth about God, but they have dismissed it; men who have hearts full of religious affection, but it has been betrayed; men who have a devout imagination, but it has been starved; men who have hopes, but they are faint unto death.
And now, of this God whom their forefathers knew in ages past, Isaiah will remind them that His throne is the circle of the heavens which arches over the earth, and to whom from His inaccessible height men appear as diminutive as grasshoppers. Isaiah will tell them that Jehovah, the God of Israel spread out the blue sky like a thin transparent garment and stretched it out above the earth like a tent in which to dwell (v. 22). That is, God stretches out the sky as an abode like the oriental stretched out his awning over the open court in the center of his house to shelter it in rain or hot weather. All of this is to indicate that His supremacy is over alL that He reigns not only from shore to shore but over every part of an infinite universe.
Logically, therefore, in His perfect timing He “bringeth the princes to nothing; he maketh the judges of the earth as vanity” (v. 23).
Nations will come and nations will go. None are permanent -none are immortal – none will ndure the ravages of time and divine destiny. They will not be planted -they will not be sown they will not take root in the earth. There will not even be any shoots springing up from the stump as when a tree is cut down – there will be no descendants whatever. One day God will blow upon them; they will wither, and the whirlwind will take them away like stubble (v. 24).
For Israel, enslaved in Babylon, impressed by her might and prosperity, infatuated by her idolatry, it was crucial that she understand that it was her neglected God who “sitteth upon the circle of the earth” (v. 22). From there He reigns supremely, and He will dash wicked nations with a rod of iron (Ps. 2:9).
Once again, in light of this truth, God poses the question to His wayward people: “To whom, then, will ye liken me, or shall I be equal? saith the Holy One” (v. 25).
What likeness will you make of the supreme deity who is the King of kings and Lord of lords, the absolute sovereign who sits on the “circle of the earth”? This time the phrase, “. . . saith the Holy One,” is added (cp. v. 18 with v. 25). Because He is holy, He will judge with justice and equity. The wicked will be punished – the righteous rewarded.
III. THE PROMISES OF GOD ARE CERTAIN (Isa. 40:26-31)
God now commands His downhearted, dismayed, faltering people to look up. “Lift up your eyes on high, and behold who hath created these things, who bringeth out their host by number; he calleth them all by names by the greatness of his might; for he is strong in power. Not one faileth” (v. 26).
Night after night, season after season, year after year the stars and heavenly bodies appear in Heaven. God “calleth them all by names by the greatness of his might.” That God calls them by names means that He knows their attributes, qualities and characteristics. They move in the right direction – at the right time – with the right speed – exerting the right gravitational pull -shining with the right intensity, “. . . for he is strong in power. Not one faileth” (v. 26). This refers to the sufficiency of the physical forces with which He has endowed the heavenly bodies to prevent all disorder in their motions.
And the point is this: If God perfectly cares for an infinite number of inanimate heavenly bodies, “Why sayest thou, O Jacob, and speakest, O Israel, My way is hidden from the Lord, and the justice due to me is passed away from my God?” (v. 27). Self-pity had set in –they thought their God had deserted them. Sensitive ears can almost hear the pleading of God, “Why sayest thou, O Jacob, and speakest, O Israel . . . ?” How could they think that they were disregarded by their God – that their cause was neglected – that their Creator and Sustainer would pass by their distress without noticing it? Had they forgotten so soon that Jehovah loves them with an everlasting love (Jer. 31:3)?
But perhaps they perceived that their God was finite in duration – that He had died – or that His intentions were good but that He had grown weak or tired.
So once again the voice of God is heard. It is like a father speaking to a wayward son upon whom much love and provision had been showered. “Hast thou not known?” Of course they knew. “Hast thou not heard . . . ?” Certainly they heard (v. 28). Throughout the chapter it is not a question so much of introducing and proving new truth, but of reminding and recalling ancient belief. This time it is a reminder that IsraeYs God is everlasting, sovereign and Creator of the ends of the earth. He doesn’t faint -He doesn’t grow weary – and there is nothing of which He is not aware. God both knew and cared about their situation.
And far from being weak or faint, as a man might become from lack of nourishment, over work or harsh treatment, “He giveth power to the faint; and to those who have no might he increaseth strength” (v. 29).
Here is a call to the biblical injunction, “. . . the just shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4). To go it alone is impossible. To try to cope with the pressures and problems associated with their captivity is to court disaster. For in the doing, “Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall” (v. 30).
However, in marked and wondrous contrast, “. . . they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” (v. 31). This does not mean that the tears and trials of captivity would immediately end -that problems would vanish-that heartache would cease. But it does mean that, now armed with a proper frame of reference to evaluate life, they would be able to live above those tears, trials, problems and heartaches. They could soar above the clouds like the eagle -run in the arena of life and not be weary -walk in the paths of uncontrollable circumstance and not faint.
Annie Johnson Flint caught something of this truth when she wrote, “God hath not promised skies always blue, Flower-strewn pathways all our lives through; God hath not promised sun without rain, Joy without sorrow, peace without pain. But God hath promised strength for the day, Rest for the labor, light for the way. Grace for the trials, help from above, Unfailing sympathy, undying love.”
Perhaps, dear reader, you once walked beside your God, and in the midst of adversity soared like an eagle only to one day fall. The tragedy is not so much in the falling but in the failure to try and fly again.
“. . . they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles . . . .”