“How Great Thou Art”
“In your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society but upward to the Great Society.” President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke those words at the University of Michigan on May 22, 1964. Reading them nearly three decades later, I asked myself, “I wonder how the Jewish captives in Babylon would have responded to what the President said?”
A rich society? They were refugees whose land and holy city were in ruins.
A powerful society? Without king or army, they were weak and helpless before the nations around them.
A great society? They had been guilty of great rebellion against God and had suffered great humiliation and chastening. They faced a great challenge but lacked great human resources.
That is why the prophet told them to get their eyes off themselves and look by faith to the great God who loved them and promised to do great things for them. “Be not afraid!” he admonished them. “Behold your God!” (40:9)
Years ago, one of my radio listeners sent me a motto that has often encouraged me: “Look at others, and be distressed. Look at yourself, and be depressed. Look to God, and you’ll be blessed!” This may not be a great piece of literature, but it certainly contains great practical theology. When the outlook is bleak, we need the uplook. “Lift up your eyes on high, and behold who hath created these things … for He is strong in power” (v. 26).
When, like Israel of old, you face a difficult task and an impossible tomorrow, do what they did and remind yourself of the greatness of God. In these eight chapters, the prophet describes the greatness of God in three different areas of life.
(1) God is greater than our circumstances (Isa. 40:1–31)
The circumstances behind us (Isa. 40:1–11). As the remnant in Babylon looked back, they saw failure and sin; and they needed encouragement. Four voices are heard, each of them with a special message for these needy people.
(1) The voice of pardon (vv. 1–2). The nation had sinned greatly against the Lord, with their idolatry, injustice, immorality, and insensitivity to His messengers (Jer. 7). But they were still His people, and He loved them. Though He would chasten them, He would not forsake them. “Speak tenderly” means “speak to the heart,” and “warfare” means “severe trials.” “Double” does not suggest that God’s chastenings are unfair, for He is merciful even in His punishments (Ezra 9:13). God chastened them in an equivalent measure to what they had done (Jer. 16:18). We should not sin; but if we do, God is waiting to pardon (1 John 1:5–2:2).
(2) The voice of providence (vv. 3–5). The Jews had a rough road ahead of them as they returned to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple, but the Lord would go before them to open the way. The picture here is of an ambassador repairing the roads and removing obstacles, preparing the way for the coming of a king. The image of the highway is frequent in Isaiah’s prophecy (see 11:16). Of course, the ultimate fulfillment here is in the ministry of John the Baptist as he prepared the way for the ministry of Jesus (Matt. 3:1–6). Spiritually speaking, Israel was in the wilderness when Jesus came; but when He came, God’s glory came (John 1:14). The way back may not be easy; but if we are trusting God, it will be easier.
(3) The voice of promise (vv. 6–8). “All flesh is grass!” Assyria was gone, and now Babylon was gone. Like the grass, nations and their leaders fulfill their purposes and then fade away, but the Word of God abides forever (Pss. 37:1–2; 90:1–6; 103:15–18; 1 Peter 1:24–25.) As they began their long journey home, Israel could depend on God’s promises. Perhaps they were especially claiming 2 Chronicles 6:36–39.
(4) The voice of peace (vv. 9–11). Now the nation itself comes out of the valley and climbs the mountaintop to declare God’s victory over the enemy. To “bring good tidings” means “to preach the Good News.” The good news in that day was the defeat of Babylon and the release of the captive Jews (52:7–9). The Good News today is the defeat of sin and Satan by Jesus Christ and the salvation of all who will trust in Him (61:1–3; Luke 4:18–19). God’s arm is a mighty arm for winning the battle (Isa. 40:10), but it is also a loving arm for carrying His weary lambs (v. 11). “We are coming home!” would certainly be good news to the devastated cities of Judah (1:7; 36:1; 37:26).
The circumstances before us (Isa. 40:12–26). The Jews were few in number, only a remnant, and facing a long and difficult journey. The victories of Assyria, Babylon, and Persia made it look as though the false gods of the Gentiles were stronger than the God of Israel; but Isaiah reminded them of the greatness of Jehovah. When you behold the greatness of God, then you will see everything else in life in its proper perspective.
God is greater than anything on earth (vv. 12–20) or anything in heaven (vv. 21–26). Creation shows His wisdom, power, and immensity. He is greater than the nations and their gods. He founded the earth and sits on the throne of heaven, and nothing is equal to our God, let alone greater than our God. The next time you are tempted to think that the world is bigger than God, remember the “drop of a bucket” (v. 15) and the “grasshoppers” (v. 22; see Num. 13:33). And if you ever feel so small that you wonder if God really cares about you personally, remember that He knows the name of every star (Isa. 40:26) and your name as well! (See John 10:3, 27.) The same God who numbers and names the stars can heal your broken heart (Ps. 147:3–4).
Someone has defined “circumstances” as “those nasty things you see when you get your eyes off of God.” If you look at God through your circumstances, He will seem small and very far away; but if by faith you look at your circumstances through God, He will draw very near and reveal His greatness to you.
The circumstances within us (Isa. 40:27–31). Instead of praising the Lord, the nation was complaining to Him that He acted as though He did not know their situation or have any concern for their problems (v. 27; 49:14). Instead of seeing the open door, the Jews saw only the long road before them; and they complained that they did not have strength for the journey. God was asking them to do the impossible.
But God knows how we feel and what we fear, and He is adequate to meet our every need. We can never obey God in our own strength, but we can always trust Him to provide the strength we need (Phil. 4:13). If we trust ourselves, we will faint and fall; but if we wait on the Lord by faith, we will receive strength for the journey. The word “wait” does not suggest that we sit around and do nothing. It means “to hope,” to look to God for all that we need (Isa. 26:3; 30:15). This involves meditating on His character and His promises, praying, and seeking to glorify Him.
The word “renew” means “to exchange,” as taking off old clothes and putting on new. We exchange our weakness for His power (2 Cor. 12:1–10). As we wait before Him, God enables us to soar when there is a crisis, to run when the challenges are many, and to walk faithfully in the day-by-day demands of life. It is much harder to walk in the ordinary pressures of life than to fly like the eagle in a time of crisis.
“I can plod,” said William Carey, the father of modern missions. “That is my only genius. I can persevere in any definite pursuit. To this I owe everything.” The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. The greatest heroes of faith are not always those who seem to be soaring; often it is they who are patiently plodding. As we wait on the Lord, He enables us not only to fly higher and run faster, but also to walk longer. Blessed are the plodders, for they eventually arrive at their destination!
(2) God is greater than our fears (Isa. 41:1–44:28)
In this section of the book, the Lord seven times says “Fear not!” to His people (41:10, 13, 14; 43:1, 5; 44:2, 8); and He says “Fear not!” to us today. As the Jewish remnant faced the challenge of the long journey home and the difficult task of rebuilding, they could think of many causes for fear. But there was one big reason not to be afraid: The Lord was with them and would give them success.
God seeks to calm their fears by assuring them that He is going before them and working on their behalf. The Lord explains a wonderful truth: He has three servants in His employ who will accomplish His will: Cyrus, king of Persia (41:1–7); the nation of Israel (vv. 8–29; 43:1–44:27); and the Messiah (42:1–25).
God’s servant Cyrus (Isa. 41:1–7). God convenes the court and asks the nations to present their case against Him, if they can. At least seventeen times in his prophecy, Isaiah writes about “the islands” (KJV) or “the coastlands” (NIV), referring to the most distant places from the holy land (11:11; 24:15; 41:1, 5; 42:4, 10, 12). “Produce your cause,” He challenges these nations (41:21); “present your case” (NIV).
God is not afraid of the nations because He is greater than the nations (40:12–17); He controls their rise and fall. He announced that He would raise up a ruler named Cyrus, who would do His righteous work on earth by defeating other nations for the sake of His people Israel. Cyrus would be a shepherd (44:28), anointed by God (45:1), a ravenous bird that could not be stopped (46:11). “He treads on rulers as if they were mortar, as if he were a potter treading the clay” (41:25, NIV).
Isaiah called Cyrus by name over a century before he was born (590?-529); and while Isaiah nowhere calls Cyrus “God’s servant,” Cyrus did serve the Lord by fulfilling God’s purposes on earth. God handed the nations over to Cyrus and helped him conquer great kings (45:1–4). The enemy was blown away like chaff and dust because the eternal God was leading the army.
As Cyrus moved across the territory east and north of the holy land (41:25), the nations were afraid and turned to their idols for help. With keen satire, Isaiah describes various workmen helping each other manufacture a god who cannot help them! After all, when the God of heaven is in charge of the conquest, how can men or gods oppose Him?
Cyrus may have thought that he was accomplishing his own plans, but actually he was doing the pleasure of the Lord (44:28). By defeating Babylon, Cyrus made it possible for the Jewish captives to be released and allowed to return to their land to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple (Ezra 1:1–4). “I have raised him up in righteousness, and I will direct all his ways; he shall build My city, and he shall let go My captives” (Isa. 45:13).
Sometimes we forget that God can use even unconverted world leaders for the good of His people and the progress of His work. He raised up Pharaoh in Egypt that He might demonstrate His power (Rom. 9:17), and He even used wicked Herod and cowardly Pontius Pilate to accomplish His plan in the crucifixion of Christ (Acts 4:24–28). “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes” (Prov. 21:1, NKJV).
God’s servant Israel (Isa. 41:8–29; 43:1–44:28) The prophet presents four pictures to encourage the people. In contrast to the fear experienced by the Gentile nations is the confidence shown by Israel, God’s chosen servant (41:8–13), because God was working on their behalf. In spite of their past rebellion, Israel was not cast away by the Lord. The Jewish captives did not need to fear either Cyrus or Babylon, because Cyrus was working for God, and Babylon would be no more. As you read this paragraph, you sense God’s love for His people and His desire to encourage them to trust Him for the future.
The title “My servant” is an honorable one; it was given to great leaders like Moses (Num. 12:7), David (2 Sam. 3:18), the prophets (Jer. 7:25), and Messiah (Isa. 42:1). But is there any honor in being called a “worm”? (41:14–16) “Servant” defined what they were by God’s grace and calling, but “worm” described what they were in themselves. Imagine a worm getting teeth and threshing mountains into dust like chaff! As the nation marched ahead by faith, every mountain and hill would be made low (40:4); and the Lord would turn mountains into molehills!
From the pictures of a servant and a worm, Isaiah turned to the picture of a desert becoming a garden (41:17–20). The image reminds us of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness and God’s provision for their every need. Water and trees are important possessions in the East, and God will supply both to His people. Certainly Isaiah was also looking beyond the return from Babylon to the future kingdom when “the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the rose” (35:1).
The final picture is that of the courtroom (41:21–29). “Produce your cause!” means “Present your case!” God challenged the idols of the nations to prove that they were really gods. Did any of their predictions come true? What have they predicted about the future? Did they announce that Cyrus would appear on the scene or that Jerusalem would be restored? “No one told of this, no one foretold it, no one heard any words from you,” taunted the Lord (v. 26, NIV). Not only were the idols unable to make any valid predictions, but they were not even able to speak! The judgment of the court was correct: “See, they are all false! Their deeds amount to nothing; their images are but wind and confusion” (v. 29, NIV).
The theme of “Israel God’s servant” is continued in Isaiah 43–44 with an emphasis on God the Redeemer of Israel (43:1–7). (Note also v. 14; 44:6, 22–24.) The word translated “redeem” or “Redeemer” is the Hebrew word for “a kinsman redeemer,” a near relative who could free family members and their property from bondage by paying their debts for them. (See Lev. 25:23–28 and the Book of Ruth.) God gave Egypt, Ethiopia (Cush), and Seba to Cyrus as a ransom payment to redeem Israel from Babylon, because Israel was so precious to Him. And He gave His own Son as a ransom for lost sinners (Matt. 20:28; 1 Tim. 2:6).
Israel is God’s servant in the world and also God’s witness to the world (Isa. 43:8–13). This is another courtroom scene where God challenges the idols. “Let them bring in their witnesses!” says the Judge; but, of course, the idols are helpless and speechless. Twice the Lord says to Israel, “You are My witnesses” (vv. 10, 12, NKJV), for it is in the history of Israel that God has revealed Himself to the world. Frederick the Great asked the Marquis D’Argens, “Can you give me one single irrefutable proof of God?” The Marquis replied, “Yes, your majesty, the Jews.”
Along with Israel’s new freedom and new witness, Isaiah writes about Israel’s new “exodus” (vv. 14–28). Just as God led His people out of Egypt and through the Red Sea (Ex. 12–15), so He will lead them out of Babylon and through the terrible wilderness to their home in the holy land. Just as He defeated Pharaoh’s army (14:28; 15:4), so He will defeat Israel’s enemies, and snuff them out “like a wick” (Isa. 43:17, NIV).
When God forgives and restores His people, He wants them to forget the failures of the past, witness for Him in the present, and claim His promises for the future (vv. 18–21). Why should we remember that which God has forgotten? (v. 25) He forgave them, not because they brought Him sacrifices—for they had no altar in Babylon—but purely because of His mercy and grace.
God chose Israel and redeemed them, but He also formed them for Himself (44:1–20). In this chapter, Isaiah contrasts God’s forming of Israel (vv. 1–8) and the Gentiles forming their own gods (vv. 9–20). “I have formed thee” is a special theme in chapters 43–44 (43:1, 7, 21; 44:2, 24). Because God formed them, chose them, and redeemed them, they had nothing to fear. He will pour water on the land and His Spirit on the people (59:21; Ezek. 34:26; Joel 2:28–29; John 7:37–39), and both will prosper to the glory of the Lord. The final fulfillment of this will be in the future Kingdom Age when Messiah reigns.
Isaiah 44:9–20 show the folly of idolatry and should be compared with Psalm 115. Those who defend idols and worship them are just like them: blind and ignorant and nothing. God made people in His own image, and now they are making gods in their own image! Part of the tree becomes a god, and the rest of the tree becomes fuel for the fire. The worshiper is “feeding on ashes” and deriving no benefit at all from the worship experience.
But God formed Israel (Isa. 44:21, 24), forgave His people their sins (v. 22; see 43:25), and is glorified in them (44:23). He speaks to His people and is faithful to keep His Word (v. 26). May we never take for granted the privilege we have of knowing and worshiping the true and living God!
God’s Servant Messiah (Isa. 42). Isaiah 42:1–7 is the first of four “Servant Songs” in Isaiah, referring to God’s Servant, the Messiah. The others are 49:1–6; 50:1–11; and 52:13–53:12. Contrast “Behold, they [the idols] are all vanity” (41:29) with “Behold My Servant” (42:1). Matthew 12:14–21 applies these words to the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ. He could have destroyed His enemies (the reed and flax), but He was patient and merciful. The Father delights in His Son, (Matt. 3:17; 17:5).
It is through the ministry of the Servant that God will accomplish His great plan of salvation for this world. God chose Him, God upheld Him, and God enabled Him to succeed in His mission. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, one day there will be a glorious kingdom; and God will “bring justice to the nations” (Isa. 42:1, NIV). Jesus Christ is “the light of the world” (John 8:12), and that includes the Gentiles (Isa. 42:6; Acts 13:47–48; Luke 1:79). Isaiah 42:7 refers to the nation’s deliverance from Babylon (29:18; 32:3; 35:5) as well as to the sinner’s deliverance from condemnation (61:1–3; Luke 4:18–19).
The closing section (Isa. 42:10–25) describes a singing nation (vv. 10–12), giving praise to the Lord, and a silent God who breaks that silence to become a shouting conqueror (vv. 13–17). God is long-suffering toward sinners; but when He begins to work, He wastes no time! The “servant” in verses 18–25 is Israel, blind to their own sins and deaf to God’s voice (6:9–10); yet the Lord graciously forgave them and led them out of bondage. Now God says to the Babylonians, “Send them back!” (42:22, NIV)
How sad it is when God disciplines us and we do not understand what He is doing or take it to heart (v. 25). Israel’s Captivity in Babylon cured the nation of their idolatry, but it did not create within them a desire to please God and glorify Him.
(3) God is greater than our enemies (Isa. 45:1–48:22)
These chapters deal with the overthrow of Babylon, and one of the major themes is, “I am the Lord, and there is none else” (45:5–6, 14, 18, 21–22; 46:9). Jehovah again reveals Himself as the true and living God in contrast to the dumb and dead idols.
The conqueror described (Isa. 45:1–25). Just as prophets, priests, and kings were anointed for service, so Cyrus was anointed by God to perform his special service for Israel’s sake. In this sense, Cyrus was a “messiah,” an “anointed one.” God called him by name over a century before he was born! Cyrus was the human instrument for the conquest, but it was Jehovah God who gave the victories. Anyone who opposed Cyrus was arguing with God, and that was like the clay commanding the potter or the child ordering the parents (vv. 9–10). God raised up Cyrus to do His specific will (v. 13), and nothing would prevent him from succeeding.
Note the emphasis on salvation. The idols cannot save Babylon (v. 20), but God is the Savior of Israel (vv. 15, 17). He is “a just God and a Savior” (v. 21), and He offers salvation to the whole world (v. 22). It was this verse that brought the light of salvation to Charles Haddon Spurgeon when he was a youth seeking the Lord.
The false gods disgraced (Isa. 46:1–13). Bel was the Babylonian sun god, and Nebo was his son, the god of writing and learning. But both of them together could not stop Cyrus! As the Babylonians fled from the enemy, they had to carry their gods; but their gods went into captivity with the prisoners of war! God assures His people that He will carry them from the womb to the tomb. Verse 4 is the basis for a stanza for the familiar song “How Firm a Foundation” that is usually omitted from our hymnals:
E’en down to old age, all My people shall prove,
My sovereign, eternal unchangeable love;
And then when grey hairs shall their temples adorn,
Like lambs they shall still in My bosom be borne. – (Richard Keen)
How comforting it is to know that our God cares for us before we are born (Ps. 139:13–16), when we get old, and each moment in between!
The city destroyed (Isa. 47:1–15). Babylon, the proud queen, is now a humbled slave. “I will continue forever—the eternal queen!” she boasted (v. 7, NIV). But in a moment, the judgment for her sins caught up with her; and she became a widow. Neither her idols nor her occult practices (vv. 12–14) were able to warn her or prepare her for her destruction. But God knew that Babylon would fall, because He planned it ages ago! He called Cyrus, who swooped down on Babylon like a bird of prey. Babylon showed no mercy to the Jews, and God judged them accordingly.
The Jewish remnant delivered (Isa. 48:1–22). The Jews had become comfortable and complacent in their Captivity and did not want to leave. They had followed the counsel of Jeremiah (Jer. 29:4–7) and had houses, gardens, and families; and it would not be easy for them to pack up and go to the holy land. But that was where they belonged and where God had a work for them to do. God told them that they were hypocritical in using His name and identifying with His city but not obeying His will (Isa. 48:1–2). They were stubborn (v. 4) and were not excited about the new things God was doing for them.
Had they obeyed the Lord in the first place, they would have experienced peace and not war (vv. 18–19), but it was not too late. He had put them into the furnace to refine them and prepare them for their future work (v. 10). “Go forth from Babylon; flee from the Chaldeans!” was God’s command (v. 20; see Jer. 50:8; 51:6, 45; Rev. 18:4). God would go before them and prepare the way, and they had nothing to fear.
One would think that the Jews would have been eager to leave their “prison” and return to their land to see God do new and great things for them. They had grown accustomed to the security of bondage and had forgotten the challenges of freedom. The church today can easily grow complacent with its comfort and affluence. God may have to put us into the furnace to remind us that we are here to be servants and not consumers or spectators.
About the Author: Warren W. Wiersbe is the Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary, Warren Wiersbe is the author of more than 100 books. Billy Graham calls him “one of the greatest Bible expositors of our generation.” The article above adapted from Warren W. Wiersbe. Be Comforted (Isaiah). David C. Cook, 2009.