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God Renews (In Your Strength or His?) - Encouragement from Isaiah 40

Updated: Nov 13

IMPACT Your One Summary

Scroll to the very bottom of this article to see this week's "Impact Your One" emphasis.


This week: God's people had focused so much on how big their problems were that they had forgotten how big God was. Isaiah posed this option: are you going to rely on your own strength to make it through, or are you going to rely on God's?


What's Your Go-To Beautiful, Inspirational Song?

Everyone has at least one song that, when they hear it, they feel lifted up. For one of my college roommates, that song was "Hold On" by Wilson Phillips. (Incidentally, if you don't believe that it's possible to hear a song too many times, well, you're wrong.)

For others of my friends, it was "My Heart Will Go On" by Celine Dion (I'm the king of the world!). For my high school group, it was "Do You Hear the People Sing?" from Les Miserables (and also "Blame It on the Rain" by Milli Vanilli, but don't hold that against us). My daughter went through a fun Kelly Clarkson "What Doesn't Kill You" phase. You get it.


I Googled "most inspirational songs" and got results like "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", "What a Wonderful World", "You Raise Me Up", and (of course) "Don't Stop Believing".


What's that song for you? To give the internet some credit, there was a Christian section of responses -- songs like "Amazing Grace" and "Born Again" were at the top of the page.


Here's part of my personal "when it comes on, I feel better" list:

"Where I Belong" by Building 429, "The Spirit and the Bride" by Matt Maher, "When We Come Alive" by Switchfoot, "Lead Me to the Cross" by Hillsong United, "My Lighthouse" by Rend Collective, and "Getaway Car" by TobyMac. And "The Safety Dance" by Men without Hats. Don't judge. I grew up in the 80s. The 80s were weird.


In Isaiah 40, we cross into some of the most beautiful, inspirational words ever put to paper. As far as literature goes, it may only be matched by the Gospel of Luke. Perhaps its most notable use is as the opening words of Handel's Messiah.

(Yes, the libretto was written by Handel's longtime collaborator Charles Jennens, but it's known as Handel's.) In this most inspirational work, the author chose to begin with Isaiah 40. Read the words of Messiah (they're surprisingly few):

Poke through the rest of the text for Messiah and be inspired. Then, read the rest of Isaiah 40 and be even more inspired.


What about When You're Physically Tired?

We've all been really, really physically tired but still have more to do. That's basically the plot of every Aleve commercial ("all day strong, all day long") or 5-hour Energy commercial ("hours and hours of energy"). What do you do when you've reached that point?


There's actually a biological phenomenon related to this. In running, it's called "the wall", and people hit it around the 20-mile mark. In exercise, our bodies burn the easiest fuel source available, which is glycogen. We store about 2,000 calories worth of glycogen, and the body burns about 100 calories per mile. That's why you see marathoners and cyclists eat and drink as they go -- their body needs more fuel.


The same is true of all of our physical activity. Teachers can generally tell which of their students didn't eat a good breakfast. And can't you tell when you haven't been eating right?


People have different ways of combating that tired feeling. Often it's chemical -- dosing on caffeine or sugar (or both! I love some Dr. Pepper! 10-2-4 is supposedly the optimal times of the day to drink a Dr. Pepper for your body's energy). Those have short-term benefits followed by short-term consequences (people call it the "sugar rush" followed by the "sugar crash", although that's apparently not exactly what's happening in our bodies).


I know some folk who have mastered the "catnap"/"power nap" (not to be confused with the Mediterranean tradition of a siesta) who swear by it for the ability to function at a high level through the entire day.


Other people I know do something similar except with meditation. They stop what they're doing and go to a quiet place to spend time with God either in prayer or in scripture reading. They find themselves refreshed and reenergized when they emerge.


There's a little bit to each one of these, right? Our bodies need proper food and proper sleep to function at their best. But there's so much more to the body than our physical needs, and that's what Isaiah is going to tap into this week. Yes -- sleep right and eat right, but also be right with God. Something supernatural happens within us when we're right with God. Let's learn what that is!

Where We Are in Isaiah

I've hinted at the huge tonal shift in Isaiah that follows Hezekiah's failures in chapters 38-39. The Bible Project does a great job explaining where we are.


This also might help explain some of the controversy behind the authorship. There's enough of a change in content and style to make a reader think that someone else has written this second part of Isaiah. I wrote about this in the first lesson in Isaiah:

I personally believe that Isaiah wrote the entire book. But The Bible Project proposes an interesting compromise: that Isaiah wrote all of the sermons/prophecies, but sometime after the Exile his followers edited and compiled them into the current form, and they did more editing on the sermons related to their current condition (post-exile). Because I know that editing has taken place throughout the Bible (what are the Gospels but an edited form of Jesus' life and teachings?), I don't have a problem with that theory. However, I think it's important to preserving Isaiah as the primary author -- the one who received the words from God that are reported throughout these chapters.


One way or another, at the end of Isaiah 39, he gives the prophecy that Jerusalem will be conquered by the Babylonians. (That indeed happened between 609 and 586 BC.) Then in chapter 40, he comes back with these words of hope. I see these chapters as being valuable to the Jews of Jerusalem who will live their entire lives under the pall of the destruction to come. (And remember -- half of the time the Jews have left will be spent under the incredibly wicked rule of Hezekiah's son, Manasseh.) People like those in The Bible Project see these chapters as being more valuable to the people living in exile or just returning from exile. Most likely we're all right -- that God wrote these words to the Jews in each situation. And is it any wonder how valuable they are to us today?


I strongly recommend that you read all of chapter 40. It's utterly breathtaking.

  • 1-2 -- there is an end to Jerusalem's punishment

  • 3-5 -- God will come to His people (see the Gospels for more)

  • 6-8 -- people come and go but God's promises endure

  • 9-11 -- God will care for His people as a shepherd

  • 12-17 -- God is above every kingdom and nation

  • 18-20 -- God is above every pathetic idol

  • 21-24 -- God is above every prince and king

  • 25-26 -- God is above the universe

  • 27-31 -- God has never abandoned His people

We are only looking at verses 18-31 this week.


If anything, we can approach this masterful chapter like this:

Even when all evidence seems to show that the world is falling apart, we can trust the guiding hand of God Almighty and rely on Him for strength and presence to take us through it.

These verses are a celebration of God and a forcible reminder that God loves us.

Part 1: Living (Isaiah 40:18-20)

18 With whom will you compare God? What likeness will you set up for comparison with him?
19 An idol?—something that a smelter casts and a metalworker plates with gold and makes silver chains for?
20 A poor person contributes wood for a pedestal that will not rot. He looks for a skilled craftsman to set up an idol that will not fall over.

At this point in Isaiah, we've gotten past the "will you trust God or in other nations" motif. That dominant theme from Isaiah 1-39 was put to bed when -- even after seeing God make good on His promise to preserve Jerusalem from Assyria -- Hezekiah still made selfish choice after selfish choice. In other words, even seeing God demonstrate His awesome power isn't enough for the people to choose to trust Him rather than themselves. And so now the focus is simply on God's incomparability. (The next section's "Do you not know?" proves how seared our judgment has become.)


We have a group in our church studying Hebrews; the title of the study is "Better" -- as in, Jesus is better than any and every alternative. Moses, angels, the law, you name it. Jesus is simply better. That's basically what Isaiah is doing here with respect to God Almighty. As I said above, verses 12-26 poetically establish that God is "better" than the nations, than any idol, than any king, than the universe itself. How? Because God created all of it.


I really like the eclectic British rock band Muse. Their latest album called Simulation Theory is built around the catchy line, "This means war with your creator." That's a longstanding sci-fi trope in which a created being like an android (see "Blade Runner"), a robot (see "Battlestar Galactica"), a clone (see "Jurassic Park"), or an AI (see "2001") decides to wipe out the humans who created it. Here's the thing about those stories -- those "creators" were flawed and weak. It was inevitable that their creation should rise up against it. But Yahweh the Creator God is perfect and all-powerful. Only those who turn jealous (like Lucifer) would think to rise up against God -- and they have no chance of winning.


In ye olden days, people would create some sort of likeness to give them a physical/tangible representation of the "god-power" they were trusting in. It's fascinating to see the differences between idols from Egypt and India and Greece and Mesopotamia.

Today, it is common to say that the ancient people were worshiping natural phenomena that they didn't have the scientific knowledge to understand (like fertility, or rain, or storms, etc.). But let's not absolve ourselves. If you aren't going to believe in God, you're going to set something up in His place. We've talked about this repeatedly in our studies. Today, some people trust in medical science, others in financial security, others in a bigger army (hence Isaiah's question to Ahaz: will you trust God or Assyria's army?). We might not kneel in front of a graven image, but we still worship idols.


Idolatry is ridiculous in any form. Isaiah points out the sheer nonsense of it. A person has to make it. Someone else has to give it pretty ornaments to make it look important. Someone else has to build the right kind of base so it doesn't fall over (wouldn't that be embarrassing!). Idolmaking is an industry for profit (read Acts 19 for when Paul ran afoul of this industry in Ephesus...)!


So again, we are faced with the question: will we trust in God or will we trust in anything else?

Part 2: Sovereign Creator (Isaiah 40:21-26)

21 Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been declared to you from the beginning? Have you not considered the foundations of the earth? 22 God is enthroned above the circle of the earth; its inhabitants are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like thin cloth and spreads them out like a tent to live in. 23 He reduces princes to nothing and makes judges of the earth like a wasteland. 24 They are barely planted, barely sown, their stem hardly takes root in the ground when he blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind carries them away like stubble.
25 “To whom will you compare me, or who is my equal?” asks the Holy One. 26 Look up and see! Who created these? He brings out the stars by number; he calls all of them by name. Because of his great power and strength, not one of them is missing.

This is a passage that tends to make me want to geek out. The more we learn about the universe, the more impossibly vast we realize it to be.


But let's not get ahead of ourselves -- Isaiah mentions the heavens and the stars here because Mesopotamian civilizations tended to study and worship them. (Remember the magi?) Assyrians, Babylonians, all of them believed that their gods lived in the sky. Their three primary gods were An (the Equatorial stars), Enlil (the northern stars), and Enki (the southern stars). But where did the stars come from? God created them.


If you've ever wondered about that strange throwaway line in the Creation narrative ("and He made the stars also" Gen 1:16), this is why. "That sun that you worship? God made that. That moon that you worship? God made that. Oh, and all those stars that you worship, God made them too."


I can't think of a more poetic way to establish God's utter supremacy (that is still intelligible to a pre-scientific culture) than the words chosen for this chapter. From the very beginning, creation itself has been declaring the majesty of God! How did you miss that? Indeed, the only way any human could claim not to know about the Creator God is through willful ignorance. Thinking about existence at all forces us to ask the questions of where the foundations of the earth came from in the first place. "Eternal" is a philosophically and logically meaningless adjective because there would be no such thing as "now". Everything had to start somewhere. The only answer that makes any sense is God.


In my opinion, "Do you not know?" has to be the most devastating question that can be asked. Think about all of the connotations that go with it. ("Have you not heard?" and "Have you not considered?" are both really strong, but in a different way.)


The consequence of this truth? Humans may as well be like grasshoppers from God's perspective. That's not very humanist! But it's certainly true. AND YET God created a world for us (and as the rest of Isaiah will establish, He longs to restore our relationship).

Psalm 8:3 When I observe your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you set in place, 4 what is a human being that you remember him, a son of man that you look after him?

Does that denigrate humanity or elevate us?


Continuing this incredible imagery, God is like a craftsman with creation -- working it like a seamstress would create fine cloth. And from our perspective, doesn't the sky seem like a tent for the earth?


That being said, is being a "prince of grasshoppers" something to boast about? How about a "nation of grasshoppers" or a "judge of grasshoppers"? When we consider the human race from the loftiness of divinity, all of our great achievements don't seem so great.


I like to watch astronomy shows. In a moment, we will talk about the stars. But here, the idea of astronomical timescale is pertinent. One scientist was explaining how effectively we can measure the lifespan of a star by knowing its color and size and brightness.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljoeOLuX6Z4


Impressively, when we know this information, we can calculate the death of a star to within (wait for it . . . . . ) a few hundred thousand years. For an object designed to last billions of years, this is quite accurate (to less than 0.0001%)! But to humans, that tiny margin for error might as well be eternity -- that's how insignificant our lifespans truly are.


(As a totally unnecessary aside, grasshoppers live 12 months and are incredibly strong. So, that might be too flattering of a comparison to humans . . .)


"To whom will you compare Me?" is such a tremendous question. It appears in some form throughout the Old Testament (like Psalm 40, Psalm 89, and Isaiah 46). The name "Michael" is Hebrew for "Who is like God?" (and the shortened form "Micah" is simply "Who is like?"). No one! Nothing! This is a rich source for excellent worship music, like Chris Tomlin's "Indescribable".


Melito of Sardis wrote an amazing Easter homily (~170 AD) that imagined what would happen if Jesus made these same kinds of statements:

Who will contend with me? Let him confront me. I have freed the condemned, brought the dead back to life, raised men from their graves. Who has anything to say against me? I, he said, am the Christ; I have destroyed death, triumphed over the enemy, trampled hell underfoot, bound the strong one, and taken men up to the heights of heaven: I am the Christ.

Pretty good, right?


Now, let me transition from the Maker of the stars to the stars themselves.


Our universe is incomprehensibly big. But it may be even bigger than that! We discovered that the edge of what we can see isn't necessarily because there's nothing else out there, but because the light hasn't had long enough to travel to us. We have no idea how much else is out there! (But we do know that it's not infinite -- the measurable forces and background radiations prove that the universe is extremely finite.)

There are at least 2 trillion galaxies in the observable universe. And if there are 100 billion stars in every galaxy, well, you do the math. Actually, don't. We can't comprehend numbers that large. But God can. God could name every star that has ever existed. (I can't name everyone in our church without confusion.) (That's not to say that every star has a "name"; the concept of "naming" something means that you have authority over that something.)


What are your favorite songs of worship? Songs like "Holy, Holy, Holy" and "Crown Him with Many Crowns" and "Behold Our God" help me put the grandeur of our God into words. Or how about a devotional book? Do you have one that particularly lifts you up in how well it speaks about God?


Bring those with you to your group and share them out loud. My guess is that if those words/lyrics are inspiring to you, they would probably inspire someone else.

Part 3: Tireless Source (Isaiah 40:27-31)

27 Jacob, why do you say, and Israel, why do you assert, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my claim is ignored by my God”? 28 Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the whole earth. He never becomes faint or weary; there is no limit to his understanding. 29 He gives strength to the faint and strengthens the powerless. 30 Youths may become faint and weary, and young men stumble and fall, 31 but those who trust in the Lord will renew their strength; they will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not become weary, they will walk and not faint.

These words have been grossly misused (including by me) so let's get them right.


Remember that Jacob and Israel are the same person -- this is just a poetic way of referring to all of the Jews. And the rest of the passage is just a poetic way of putting the Jews in their place, so to speak.


What happened when Peter took his eyes off of Jesus when he was walking on the water? He got distracted by the waves and then began to sink. That wasn't just a cool story in the Bible -- it has intense meaning for us. What is it?

When we take our eyes off of Jesus and focus on the waves around us, we start think about how big the waves are and not how "big" Jesus is.


That's what had happened to the Jews. They had "forgotten" how great their God was. "Do you not know?" Well, no -- they had forgotten. And as a result they could only see how dire their circumstances were. And their circumstances were dire! The miraculous defense of Jerusalem took place around 701 BC, but the countryside was devastated for years. Sometime between then and Hezekiah's death in 686 BC, Isaiah delivered the prophecy that Babylon will conquer Jerusalem. After Hezekiah's death, his son Manasseh became the longest-reigned king of Judah (more than 50 years) -- except as the most wicked of all the kings of Judah! There was one bright spot of a few years of reform under King Josiah, but he got himself killed in a senseless attack on Egypt (I gave these details a few weeks ago:)

So, from the end of Hezekiah's rule, Judah knew almost nothing but hardship and wicked kings. And then they were utterly destroyed and the survivors taken into exile. They were certainly in bad shape, and that's all they really seemed to notice.


They had forgotten that God was so much greater than their circumstances.


They were weary of their lives, and so they believed that God must have either missed those tragic events or been to tired to deal with them. But that's not how God works. God doesn't miss anything. ("Aren't five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God's sight." Luke 12:6) God also doesn't get tired. The Sabbath was not for His sake but for ours! We get tired. Not God.


[Aside on fatigue. Fatigue is a tiredness or exhaustion (physical or mental) brought on by exertion. It doesn't have to be caused by an ailment. It can be caused by sleep deprivation, heavy exercise, excessive drinking, stress, and even boredom. Fatigue was a problem in our country before the pandemic, and now "pandemic fatigue" has become its own thing.


Emedicine estimates that 20% of Americans suffer from fatigue serious enough to interfere with their normal schedule (!). Many times, fatigue can be remedied simply by slowing down and resting, but failing to take care of yourself can lead to more serious problems.

Have you ever fallen asleep on the job or in a class? What caused it? I've heard horror stories of the physical toll of shift work in a hospital or for emergency responders. When you get that tired, what impact does it have on you? We all have limits.]


And that leads to a big misunderstanding about this passage. Some people will say that the point of this verse is that God miraculously helps us with fatigue. When I first became a Christian, I suggested as much to a friend of mine whose dad was tired from working a bunch of overtime. "Hey, the Bible says that God will renew your strength; he just needs to have more faith." Yeah, that didn't go over well. And yet, I've read more or less that same sentiment many times in the years since.


So, what is God saying?


It's rooted in the overall context -- right before this chapter is the prophecy of the exile. Right before this verse is the accusation that God has missed the plight of the Jews. So these are big-picture statements that need to be understood in the larger argument of Isaiah: "Are you going to trust in God or in your own strength?"


Framed like that, this verse should make a lot more sense. Everybody has a limit to their physical strength and endurance -- even the youngest. (To grandparents who are taking care of grandchildren, that might be unbelievable!)


But those who "trust in the Lord" will renew their strength. People get hung up on the imagery of running without getting tired (weary) or walking without fainting (collapsing), insisting on treating it literally. But what's the previous image? Soaring on wings like eagles! That's not literal! These are figures of speech that are commonly used in the Bible for spiritual parallels (Paul uses "walk" and "run" regularly as an image of the Christian life). Just as God provides the updrafts that enable eagles to soar for impossible distances without landing, so will He provide you with the "updrafts" you need to continue your progress through your life.


Do you think that's not a big deal? Not "miraculous" enough?


Take a look at this recent, short editorial entitled "How Much More Can You Stand?".

It was not written with our passage in mind, but I think it quite effectively communicates just how important the idea of tapping into God's strength for endurance really is. Think about all of the seemingly random topics we've thought about above. The interplay between our physical, mental, and spiritual health is the key ingredient to us understanding and appreciating what God has promised to us in our passage.


Does God have to suspend the laws of how our bodies convert caloric energy to sustain us through our day? No! Do you believe that God can help you face another day? Yes. It's as simple as that. When our world is collapsing (and although it may not be the same kind of devastation as Judah did when this was written, many people we care about are facing collapses), do we want to face it in our own strength, or do we want to ask for God's strength to sustain us?


Remember how I said last week that Isaiah was shifting from the national to the personal? Well, this passage is a perfect encapsulation of that. It's no longer "I hope my nation makes the right choice to trust in God rather than in a military alliance" -- it's now "Am I going to trust in God to make it through these terrible times?" That's powerful.


Paul makes a similar point (Galatian 6) except clarifying the end goal:

7 Don’t be deceived: God is not mocked. For whatever a person sows he will also reap, 8 because the one who sows to his flesh will reap destruction from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit. 9 Let us not get tired of doing good, for we will reap at the proper time if we don’t give up. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us work for the good of all, especially for those who belong to the household of faith.

Eventually, we get tired of doing good. We get tired of helping others who don't deserve it. When things look pointless, we want to give up.


Unless.


Unless we ask God for the mental and strength to keep fighting. Keep working. Keep serving. And when we are in that right place mentally and spiritually, we will find more physical energy than we thought we had. (Not coincidentally, when we are in that "right place", we will have been eating and sleeping well and taking care of ourselves.)


If you've ever had that seemingly-miraculous "second wind", share that story. If you're weary right now (and a lot of you are), ask God for help. What do you need to stop worrying about? What do you need to focus on? What service opportunity is there for you?

This is our very short Impact Moment tie-in. The personal experiences we've thought about last week and this week might be key elements of our personal testimony. This week, we want to make sure that everyone understands how to share their "testimony" as a part of a gospel conversation. There are four key parts to a testimony:

  1. What my life was like before I met Christ

  2. How I realized I needed Christ

  3. How I came to Christ for salvation

  4. What my life is like now in Christ

With so many hurting people around us, someone needs to hear your story of hope. Write out your testimony. Create a short version -- no more than a few minutes. Then commit to sharing it with someone this week.

End this time by declaring the praises of God. He loves us so much that He sent Jesus to die for us.

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