At this place in Isaiah’s prophecy, God reveals to Isaiah, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, a prayer from the people of Israel and God’s response to their prayer. The prayer is in verses 9-11, and God’s response is in verses 12-16. To best understand the passage, we need to understand the context.
Chapters 1-39 of the book of Isaiah proclaim judgment to the people. God expresses His displeasure with Israel for how they have broken God’s Covenant. God speaks of how He will discipline Israel and judge them for their sins. Throughout chapters 1-39, we learn how God will discipline His people through Babylonian captivity, and His Servant Messiah will ultimately lovingly deliver them.
Chapters 40-66 of Isaiah are written to give sustaining hope to the Israelites during God’s period of Babylonian captivity. The second half of Isaiah speaks of the deliverance of the Israelites and God’s care for them by sending them a Messiah.
As we read chapters 40-66, we need to read it through the eyes of of the Israelites in Babylon. They are without a homeland. They are slaves among foreigners and struggling to survive. Life is hard.
They are God’s chosen people, even while in Babylon. God desires to sustain them and give them hope. The only thing that will get them through the difficult Babylonian captivity is the Word of God. The promise of a Messiah is their hope.
We are Like the Israelites
Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the Israelites during their time of captivity in Babylon. They need freedom. History shows that the captives of a tyrant are not easily rescued (Isaiah 49:24). They are hurting and in need of comfort. They do not have all that they need, and so they are wanting, and they need fulfillment.
The Israelites are weak, perhaps as weak as their time in Egypt. In their frailty, they need help. They cannot save themselves. Their oppressors afflict and hurt them, and the Israelites need comfort.
Their situation is desperate, and they need hope. Like everyone, they want to have their sorrow turned into joy.
We are the same. We are God’s chosen people. We have the same Creator who made us with the same emotions and needs as the Israelites. Our situations are not the same. We are from a different time and place. However, they hurt, and we hurt. We suffer sorrow, pain and affliction. We are weak and frail against that which oppresses us. We have times of complete desperation. And, like the saints of Israel, we will pray and call upon the Lord for help.
Prayer to the Lord
The Israelites cry out in desperation. “Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord.” (Isaiah 51:9)
They know God doesn’t sleep or slumber. But, in their situation, it sure feels like He is sleeping. Why is He not helping them? Isn’t He the God of the Israelites? Are they not His people? Wake up, God!
The Israelites pray to the arm of the Lord. The phrase, “the arm of the Lord.” is symbolic of God using His power to reach in and help His people. When we are sick call upon the great Physician. When we lack, we invoke Jehovah-Jireh, our Provider. The Israelites need a powerful rescuer, so they call upon the strong and mighty arm of the Lord.
Isaiah 53:1 identifies the “arm of the Lord” as the Servant of the Lord, the Messiah of Israel, the one who we know as Jesus of Nazareth. When God needs a job done, Jesus is His man. Jesus is God’s right arm.
The Israelites situation in Babylon is like their situation in Egypt. Like days past, they are captives to a tyrant. They are hurt, desperate and afflicted. Joy escapes them. Like in Egypt, the Israelites need God to rescue them miraculously.
In their prayer, they ask God four times, was it you? Remember, generations ago, wasn’t it you who cut up Egypt with plagues? Who pierced the heart of Pharaoh, the dragon, by slaying his firstborn son? Was that You? As we were leaving Egypt, was it You who dried up the Red Sea so we, the redeemed Israelites, may pass through? Who made the pathway? Aren’t you the One who did all these things?
Where are You today, Lord? Are You awake? Are we not Your people? Why rescue us from Egypt just to let us suffer the same fate in Babylon?
The reason we ask is that we want to return to Zion. They want to go back to the land of Israel. They picture themselves walking into the gates of Jerusalem with joyful shouts. Gone is the sorrow and sighing. They desire to enter the gates with gladness and joy on their lips.
In this passage, we find the Israelites prayer requests much like ours. Their request is what all of God’s people desire. We desire to enter the Kingdom of God with everlasting joy on our heads. They appeal to the glory of God. Show Your glory and ransom Your people from captivity. Bring us into Your kingdom where joy is abundant.
The Lord Responds
Remember, God is He, who comforts us
God responds with beautiful words of encouragement. He says, “I, even I, am He who comforts you” (Isaiah 51:12). Israel is praying to the right source for help. The Israelites ask twice, “Was it not you,” and God responds, it is I. I am He.
I am He who comforts My people. I am the One who saves your ancestors with My strong arm. I am He who cut Rahab in pieces and pierced the dragon for your sake. I am the One who dries up the sea and makes a pathway for the redeemed to cross over. That is Me.
Remember, our oppressors are incomparable to God
I, am He who comforts you, but who are you? (Isaiah 51:12). Who are you?
God turns their questions around. He says, “I am the all-powerful God who ransoms His people. The real question is, “who are you?”
Who are you that is afraid of man? God questions their faith. It’s as if God is saying, “I am the God of Moses. He stands before Pharaoh unafraid and leads My people out of Egypt. I am the God of David. He faces Goliath with a slingshot. I am the God of those who fear Me. I am not the God of those who fear men.”
God’s people are a people of faith. These people have weak faith. Their focus is on their dire situation and the strength and might of their oppressors.
Remember, these verses are written by Isaiah in Jerusalem, before the Babylonian captivity. The prayer and God’s response to the prayer are prophetic. God is revealing how they will pray while in Babylon, and how He will respond. God is helping them see, before it happens, how they will stray. They will forget that they are in captivity because of God’s discipline, as Isaiah has written.
God tells them there will be difficulties, but the goal is to refine them. God is always aware of our situation because He allows them to happen. In times of difficulty, we need to fear God, and not men or our situation.
To the Israelites, the oppressors appear insurmountable. They are obsessing over their situation. God’s people ought not to obsess over their situation when we know God is Sovereign.
God reveals the folly of their thinking. How is it that you are afraid of man? Your oppressor is like a piece of grass. He will wither and die. He is nothing. Will you obsess over your oppressor? How come you are afraid of men, but you are not afraid of the Lord, your Maker? I am the Lord Who stretches out the heavens and lays the foundations of the earth (Isaiah 51:12). Will you fear the one who is like grass, or the One who is the Maker of the heavens and the earth?
Now that you are desperate, you call upon me. Before now, instead of thinking of Me, you fear daily because of the fury of your oppressor (Isaiah 51:12). Your eyes are looking down at the grave in the ground instead of looking to the sky for My deliverance.
They have forgotten the Lord. They have His Word but forget to read it and trust it. They forgot His power over their enemies. They forgot He is sovereign and that the Babylonians are subject to Him. They forgot the Lord’s promises of deliverance. They forgot that the reason they are in captivity is that God put them there. But, despite their failure, God will rescue them. God’s goodness is not based on our performance, but it is His character to save.
Remember, God’s promise of freedom and abundance
God reminds His people of His promises. “The exile will soon be set free, and will not die in the dungeon, nor will his bread be lacking.” (Isaiah 51:14) God always promises His people freedom. We receive freedom from our sins and freedom from death.
Of all the people in the world, the children of God are the most blessed. Not only are we set free, but we also have all the blessings from heaven in Christ. God assures us by giving us His word of promise.
Remember, God’s sovereign power is our assurance
God backs up His promises by assuring us of His sovereign power. He tells of His power over creation. “For I am the Lord your God, who stirs up the sea and its waves roar (the Lord of hosts is His name).” As we look at the mighty seas and the tempest they bring, we know God is all-powerful.
The disciples of Jesus know the book of Isaiah very well. Imagine knowing this verse, and then hearing Jesus speak to the waves and calm the sea. No wonder His disciples say, “what kind man is this?”
Isaiah adds a statement of parenthesis. He is the Lord of Hosts. That is His name. The angels serve at His command. God sends just one soldier from His heavenly army to slay 180,000 Assyrian soldiers. Every throne and dominion, and every ruler and authority are created by God and for God (Colossians 1:15-17). God will set us free and bring about His purpose and plan to ransom His saints by using all the power in His control. He will use the power of nature and the powers in the spiritual realm. We may have great assurance in the omnipotence of our Maker.
Remember, God’s word is our guarantee
When we contemplate these great and precious promises, we know they will come to pass because God gives us His word. God is not a liar. All that He says will come to pass. God says, “I have put My words in your mouth and have covered you with the shadow of My hand, to establish the heavens, to found the earth, and to say to Zion, ‘You are My people.’”
If God says we are His people, it is a guarantee. God’s word is given to us, prophetically, so we know it is Him speaking. In the book of Isaiah, we find several prophecies that come true proving God’s word. God tells His people that the Assyrian army and King Sennacherib will not defeat Jerusalem, but Sennacherib will die by the sword, and it happens (Isaiah 37:36-38).
God tells King Ahaz that the shadow will travel backward, and it does (Isaiah 38:7-8) and he will live another 15 years to his life.
God tells His people that they will become captive in Babylon (Isaiah 39:7) and that Cyrus will rescue them from captivity (Isaiah 44:28).
Multiple times in the book of Isaiah, God promises the Messiah. The prophecy about Jesus is profound. God’s people have His word that He will establish the heavens and the earth for the benefit of His people and the Messiah is their King. The surety of God’s word is our guarantee.
We are Like the Israelites
As we read through these chapters, we need to think of the Israelites in Babylonian captivity. They are without a homeland. They are among foreigners, enslaved to serve, and working to survive. They are just getting by. Life is hard.
Like us, they take their eyes off God. They allow their circumstances to rule their thinking. In doing so, they forget God’s promises. It is easy to do when you are imprisoned in this world. They allow the circumstances in their life to weaken their faith. The loss of faith lessens their joy. And, as a result, they become a defeated and helpless witness to others.
Being a child of God is never easy. God doesn’t remove us from the tragedy and heartache of this world. We easily lose heart. We become weary trying to stay focused on God when the challenges of life are upon us. We lose employment, relationships sour, or a child gets very sick. We lose a loved one. We struggle with aches, pains, and illnesses. None of us can say life is easy.
God desires for His people to bless the nations
The author of Hebrews lists a complete chapter of the heroes of the faith (Hebrews 11). Each person listed experiences difficulties in life. Each person perseveres by faith. The writer of Hebrews encourages the reader to be like each of those people. He tells us to persevere by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the author, and finisher of our faith.
Look to Jesus. Remember what He has done. Because of Jesus, we have to ask ourselves, what is the worst possible thing that may happen to us? Death is the worst thing, but, death is the door to the entrance of heaven. As the Apostle Paul says, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Imagine Jesus standing beside us. What will He say to us when we lose a job, suffer illness, suffer hurt from a broken relationship, or have financial hardship? Jesus will put His loving arm around us and say, “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
After putting His arm around us, what do you think He will say if we continue to dwell upon the problems of life? In other words, when does thinking about our afflictions become too much thinking about our afflictions and not enough thinking about Jesus overcoming the world?
There is a fine line between anxiety, worry, obsessing over affliction, and sin. When we continue not to allow the words of God to help us in our faith, we are in disobedience. At some point, Jesus will say again, “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”
Have peace. Take courage. Jesus overcame everything.
God wants to sustain us and give us hope. The way to keep our eyes on Jesus is to keep our eyes on the Word of God. The Israelites bring their scrolls with them to Babylon. It is God’s word that gives them hope. God’s word is the one thing that will sustain us through our difficulties in life. It will help us stay strong and persevere and give us hope.
In the Servant Song in chapter 50, Jesus says, “The Lord God has given Me the tongue of disciples, that I may know how to sustain the weary one with a word. He awakens Me morning by morning; He awakens My ear to listen as a disciple.” (Isaiah 50:4)
Jesus sustains the weary with God’s word. We may sustain ourselves and one another by being disciples and ministers of God’s word. We are to listen to Psalm One. Blessed are those who meditate on God’s word both day and night. They are like a tree planted by the stream, it’s leaf does not wither, and it yields fruit in its season. The picture is a Christian withstanding the scorching heat and storms of life. The word of God is the stream of life. As the afflicted come to them, they give shade and shelter and feed the hungry fruit. We are to be like Jesus, sustaining the weary with a word.
When we live with our eyes on Jesus, and we saturate ourselves with God’s word, we will count it all joy when life becomes difficult. We will be different. When the rest of the world has no hope, they will see us responding to the challenges of life.
The persecuted church desires we pray for them. They don’t want us to pray for them to have money. They don’t want us to pray for their release from their captors. They ask us to pray that they persevere. They know that when they persevere, their captors see genuine faith. Their captors see and hear about the hope within them. When they persevere, they become light in their dark prison. They are a ray of hope. They fulfill the promise made to Abraham in that they are a blessing to the nations. They are the only good thing amidst the evil and they can’t imagine leaving.
When we allow circumstances to dictate our demeanor and our outlook, we don’t witness hope to a dying world. When we focus on that which oppresses us, we are not expressing faith in Christ overcoming the world.
(Summary) The sufferings and comfort of Christ
God doesn’t want us to downplay the present afflictions and sufferings of this world. He doesn’t want us to live in an alternate reality that denies sufferings.
What God wants us to do is know that this world has troubles, but remember the words He speaks to us. He wants us to embrace the sufferings and embrace the comfort we have in Christ. He speaks to us so that we may have peace. In the world, we will have affliction and sufferings. But, Christ gives us comfort. He rises from the dead, so we may take courage knowing He overcomes the world.
Never forget the power, sovereignty, and promises of God during times of difficulty.