Commentary on Isaiah 40:21-31
Given the choice between a source of relief that is distant and slow acting but guaranteed and one that is nearby but ineffective, most persons may tend to choose the relief close at hand.
While the immediate hardly translates into efficacy so too distance and timelessness more often yield better results.
Second Isaiah articulates these choices for the dispirited community of deportees in Babylon who neither understand the events of their present nor God’s presence in that history. Cast mostly as a book of hope, this section of Isaiah offers a compelling case for trust in the power of God over and against any other source of help.
The exuberance that marks Second Isaiah fits well in the Advent season where the theme of hope surfaces regularly. In other liturgical contexts the theme of hope poses challenges for preachers. All too easily sermons on this passage can dissolve into feel good motivational speeches. Paying attention to the lection and even the full chapter should help avoid the tempting familiarity of verse 31 that can produce a homiletical version of “I Believe I Can Fly.”
Attention to the entirety of this lection reveals forceful theological claims aimed at convincing the wavering, the skeptic, and perhaps the apostate of the ability of God to make a difference in the current circumstances. As such, the focus of the passage shines light upon the ability of God to deliver another movement in God’s ongoing history with the world.
Second Isaiah sets out to show the unrivaled supremacy of God as compared with Babylonian deities. The disputatious tone of the chapter lays out the challenges that God poses to these deities and invites readers to participate with God in the movement of history. Starting the lection at verse 18 makes for a more discrete section and sets the context of idol critique that runs through much of Second Isaiah. The missing verses 18-20 provide the contrast with the claims of verses 21-24; other deities are created, God is the creator. The language of creation from the Psalms confirms this (Psalm 104:2).
The writer constructs his own creation images relating to time, “the foundation of the world” (cf. Psalm 104:13). Placing God in the midst of creation does more than simply construct a timeless deity. This move invests God with contemporary abilities that lead to the dismantling of empires. The conclusion of verse 23 speaks to the collapse of the Babylonian Empire and at the same time the divine control over earthly power. The metaphor of the destruction of vegetation in verse 24 emphasizes and returns to a previous image in verses 7-8 on the power of the breath of God.
The comparisons between God and other deities continue in verses 25-26, using the same rhetorical question as verse 18. While verse 18 invites a look at physical objects, verse 25 turns the focus to heavenly objects, most likely stars, sun, and moon. The claims here undercut those of the astral cults of Babylon that place these heavenly objects as divine beings. The use of the technical word for “create” bārā’, connects this passage with the creation accounts in Genesis, the only other text that uses this word. Genesis 1:14-16 carefully subjects the moon and stars to the power of creation rather than the other way around. And like the Genesis accounts, this passage invokes the idea of creation through naming.
The distinctiveness of the creation accounts in the Bible support the answer to the question raised in verses 18 and 25, none other than God. Both Second Isaiah and Genesis seem to set apart God’s creative activity as distinct from any other action of creation or production. Joseph Blenkinsopp observes that Second Isaiah’s choice to talk about God as the “creator deity”1 marks a new theological turn that in its context seems like exaggeration. Precisely the distinctiveness of the historical moment suggests the need for this new theological turn.
The final section of the chapter introduces a direct address and confrontation with the presumed audience. The deportees who experienced Babylonian power but still cannot perceive the power of God in the new historical circumstances are now addressed. In connecting the previous theological claims with the current context the passage puts together creation and the present in one moment. The repeat of verse 21 in verse 28, with some modifications, moves the earlier discussion from the abstract to the concrete. The rhetorical force of the passage indicates that the creation motif not only underlines the claims of the supremacy of God but that it forms the foundation of faith for the weary and those who cannot understand the movement of history.
The temporal and spatial descriptions of God in verse 28, “the everlasting God” (literally “the God of forever”) and “creator of the ends of the earth,” indicate the limitless dimensions of the power and concern of God. As such, no historical moment stands outside of the power of God. The rest of verse 28 affirms this as it indicates that God’s capacity is endless as God’s reach is inexhaustible. The passage then translates these claims to real people in verses 29-31. While the passage starts with the contrast between God and other deities it grows to a climax with the contrast between God and the best of masculine virility in verse 30.
The verse stresses the inadequacy of human power for the long distances of history and the circumstances of life. This leads verse 31 to call on listeners to participate in God’s processes in order to experience transformation. The composite images of verse 31 (wings like eagles, unwearied feet, boundless stamina) invoke that of a winged animal with a human head from several ancient Near Eastern cultures. These hybrid creatures represent strength and power. The weak, the faint, the despairing, and the doubting get a do-over and perhaps also a makeover. God’s creating power can transform human ability to deal with the terrain of their new circumstances.
The creation affirmations in the passage ties past and present into the history of God’s actions. Newness is possible because God stands at creation. Transformation can happen because God is the only source of power as seen in creation. Life can take a new start because the one who keeps creation together acts in the events of history for good. In the midst of history, particular one marked by turmoil, change, and emerging events, Second Isaiah advocates waiting, not as a neutral activity2 but waiting with hope for optimistic results because God acts in history.
1Joseph Blenkinsopp, The Anchor Bible — Isaiah 40-55. (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 192.
February 5, 2012