Isaiah is a single book but is generally considered to be composed of three distinct parts from different moments in the history of Israel. What unites these different parts is a concern with the contemporary and future state of Israel. During the period in which the different elements of Isaiah were written Israel was under threat from Assyrian expansion; had been taken captive in Babylon and was struggling with a return to Jerusalem. It is a book about threat, suffering, and restoration. It is also about human failure and the ultimate triumph of God.
Some commentators split Isaiah into three parts with Chapters 40 to 55 forming the middle of three parts. Today’s reading is Isaiah 40 which in the tradition just described is written in exile. The passage is filled with the imagery of nature. In it human beings and the work of human hands are given similar status as the mountains and sheep. We, like sheep and grasshoppers, are a small part of the fullness of God’s creation and above all creation stands the mighty God.
10 See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.
11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms,and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
12 Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?
13 Who has directed the spirit of the Lord, or as his counselor has instructed him?
14 Whom did he consult for his enlightenment, and who taught him the path of justice? Who taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?
15 Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as dust on the scales; see, he takes up the isles like fine dust.
16 Lebanon would not provide fuel enough, nor are its animals enough for a burnt offering.
17 All the nations are as nothing before him; they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.
18 To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?
19 An idol? —A workman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold, and casts for it silver chains.
20 As a gift one chooses mulberry wood[c] —wood that will not rot—then seeks out a skilled artisan to set up an image that will not topple.
21 Have 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?
22 It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in;
23 who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
25 To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.
27 Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”?
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.
30 Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
31 but 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.
Questions for reflection
- God’s power is declared to be far greater than any human or natural force. What are the implications of God’s power for how we treat others and the natural world? Does it matter how we act if God’s power is so much greater?
- We are like grasshoppers says the writer. If we are more like grasshoppers than like God how does this affect we should treat other creatures of creations?
- This section of Isaiah is written in exile and longs for the return of Israel to Jerusalem. Are there elements of your life where you long for a return of something from the past which is lost?
Iain Provan (2014) Seriously Dangerous Religion
Abraham Heschel (2001), The Prophets
John Goldingay (2014), The Theology of the Book of Isaiah