The Explore the Bible Lesson for Oct. 25 focuses on Isaiah 40:18-31.
The transition from Isaiah 39 to Isaiah 40 marks one of the most important shifts in the entire book. While chapters 1-39 address the prophet’s own contemporaries and the threat of the Assyrian empire, chapters 40-66 jump hundreds of years into the future and address later generations of Israelites who are in exile (40-55) and then those who have returned (56-66).
Chapter 39 ends with Isaiah warning King Hezekiah that future generations will be conquered and dragged into exile by the Babylonian empire. Isaiah’s prophecy would come true in the 500s B.C. Babylon would deport a first group of Judeans in 597 before sacking Jerusalem and taking even more into exile in 587/586.
Addressed to the Judeans exiled in Babylon, Isaiah 40 begins to offer promises of hope and restoration. Israel’s punishment is over, the prophet says, and God will soon take them back home.
But another key theme of Isaiah 40 (and indeed the rest of chapters 40-55) is the uniqueness of God. These chapters in Isaiah contain some of the most robust and explicit monotheism of the entire Bible, meant to contrast sharply with the polytheism of Babylon and to assert God’s unrivaled power.
The Folly of Idols
Our passage begins with a pair of rhetorical questions from the prophet: “With whom, then, will you compare God? To what image will you liken him?” (40:18) The implied answers are “no one,” and “none.” There is no one and nothing that can compare with the Lord.
Isaiah proceeds to offer a description of idolatrous practices. He describes how idols are made and then overlaid with precious metals like gold and silver (40:19). But poor people, Isaiah points out, cannot afford these fancy idols; the poor must settle for pieces of wood that will not rot and must have this wood crafted in such a way that the idol will not fall over (40:20).
The irony of idolatry is plain: these “gods” are no more powerful than the hands that crafted them. Indeed, a poor idol cannot even stand up on its own unless designed properly by a human. What kind of god is this? These “gods” are inferior to God in every conceivable way; any sort of meaningful comparison is laughable.
While it may be tempting for modern Christians to look down our noses and laugh at ancient, “superstitious” idolatry, we have many idols of our own. Just because we do not bow down and pray before physical idols doesn’t mean we don’t put our trust and faith in human-made objects. And such idolatry is just as sinful and laughable now as it was in Isaiah’s day.
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The Incomparable God
Isaiah follows this description of idolatry by launching into an elaborate description of God’s power and glory. God is over the heavens and the earth; he himself created them and continues to exercise control over them (40:22).
God is not only in control over nature; he is in control over history and human affairs, as well. Human rulers, no matter how powerful or prestigious, are nothing compared to God. God is the one who raises them up, and he is the one who brings them down. Even the longest human reign is transient next to God’s eternal rule (40:23-24).
Isaiah uses an agricultural metaphor to highlight God’s superiority over human princes. Isaiah compares human princes to fresh, new plants who are reduced to chaff, the useless scraps of grain blown away by the breeze during the threshing process (40:24).
God himself, speaking through the prophet, then asks more rhetorical questions: “To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” (40:25) The implied answer again is “no one.” God then asserts his sovereignty over the stars of heaven; God created them and God controls every single one (40:26).
This would have been a powerful message in the ears of Israelites exiled in Babylon. They were surrounded by idols and images of pagan deities. But God asserts his power and authority over any other “god.” These gods do not even exist; they are lifeless mockeries made by human hands. God alone is creator and Lord of the universe.
The Sustaining Power of the Lord
What relevance does God’s power have for the lives of his followers? It was the same for the ancient Israelites as it is for us today: we can trust God for provision and protection. Many of the Israelites living in exile understandably believed they had been forgotten or abandoned by God (40:27). But Isaiah makes clear this is not true at all.
Isaiah reminds God’s people of God’s power (40:28) before explaining how God gives strength to those in need. God grants strength to the weary and power to the weak (40:29). Even strong, strapping young men may grow tired and fall (40:30), but anyone who trusts in the Lord will receive renewed strength (40:31).
Our passage concludes with a beautiful and well-known promise of God’s sustaining power and deliverance: “They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (40:31).
These final lines are the basis of numerous works of Christian art, including hymns. The poetic language beautifully captures the power that belongs to believers. But this power is not meant for triumphalism or the “prosperity gospel.” Rather, this power is best exercised through sacrificial service to others, as exemplified by Jesus Christ (John 13:1-17).
Joshua Sharp is a writer and Bible teacher living in Waco. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Truett Theological Seminary.