Commentary on Isaiah 40:21-31
The chapters following Isaiah 40 address a tired and weary people who likely had some trouble imagining a new future.
At the beginning of Isaiah 40, the call went out to comfort the people who have been exiled from their homeland and for a desert highway to be built for their return. Verses 21-31 proclaim God’s power that will make this vision a reality. Isaiah 40:21-31 both disputes any claim to divine power apart from the LORD and confesses the character of the LORD. Both are expressed through the lens of God’s creative abilities.
Verses 21-31 are part of a longer section beginning in verse 18. The passage may be broken into four sections, identified by repeated lines:
18-20: To whom will you liken God?
21-24: Have you not known? Have you not heard?
25-27: To whom will you liken me?
28-31: Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD, the Creator of all
Verses 21-24 question how it is that the people do not recognize God’s creative power and then give examples of this power that would be difficult to miss. The first image in verse 22 is of a dome over the earth, with God sitting atop it. Meanwhile, below, the much tinier, much less powerful inhabitants go about their business, like insects in a terrarium. The dome, as the Israelites would have imagined it, acted as a solid boundary to protect the earth from the waters of chaos (Genesis 1:6-8). Windows would open to let in water in the form of rain and then close when the rains were complete. What kind of creator is this? One who sets life-giving boundaries. One who keeps the waters of chaos at bay.
The second image in verse 22 is of the LORD stretching out the heavens like a tent. The metaphor is common in the Hebrew Bible, as the action of stretching out animal skins or goat’s hair cloth over and around poles to create a tent would have been familiar. Whether one dwells in a tent of stretched skins or another type of habitation, the image of God preparing a home resonates across the generations. What kind of creator is this? One who makes a home for God’s creatures. One who provides and protects.
At first blush, the image in verse 23 of the LORD bringing “princes to naught” and making “the rulers of the earth like nothing” seems to have little to do with creation and to run counter to the above acts of provision and protection. In verse 23 the Hebrew word translated as “nothing” in the NRSV is the same word translated as “void” in Genesis 1:2 (tohu). One recalls that in Genesis it was into such a formless void that God spoke creation. God has power even over “nothingness.”
As for the princes, a good and orderly ruling of the world has much to do with the created order in the Hebrew Bible. Whatever void occurs from the loss of these rulers, God will fill this void with something new. Creation is not a one-time act but ongoing, sustaining activity that includes fostering societies that operate in life-giving ways. When that ruling is neither good nor orderly, God just might blow as one blows chaff, making room for a new creation.
The LORD knows you
To whom will you compare me? In verses 18-20, just before the beginning of the pericope, the response to this question was negative: do not liken me to gods made with human hands. In verses 25-27, the dispute has more to do with the people of Israel accusing God of not seeing them, of passing them over (see NRSV “disregarded”; verse 27). Perhaps another God has their best interests at heart and will sustain them into the future?
Once more creation imagery serves as a way to address the concern. Look to the heavens with their host, the moon and the stars. Are any of them missing? Have they floated away? No. God has named them and claimed them. In the same way, God has named and claimed Israel.
The LORD recreates and strengthens
Verses 28-31 look toward the future. Throughout this section of Isaiah, God’s action of returning the Israelites—at least those who desired to go—to Jerusalem is understood as an act of creation. The same power used to make the heavens and the earth will be leveraged on behalf of the people to form them into a new creation. In verse 28, the statement that the Creator does not faint or grow weary suggests that there is more to come. God has not finished with Israel yet.
Part of this creative work will be renewing and strengthening the people as this work is accomplished. God may not be tired, but humans are. Imagining a new future, physical travel toward Jerusalem, and rebuilding a city still largely destroyed are activities that require energy. Those trusting in the incomparable LORD, however, will have the energy to move forward into the new creation that the LORD has in store.
Those who returned to Jerusalem would find their share of struggle and disappointment. The promise of new creation was not a promise of life outside of the world as they knew it. Yet the creative power of their God opened for them a way where before there had been no way.
Weariness, of course, is not unique to the Israelites. Moving forward with joy into a newly created future that one cannot yet imagine may require strength beyond what humans hold within themselves. This word might be welcome among people struggling to imagine what their own future holds. The promise of God’s continual creative work, with its mysterious yet life-giving power, continues to be a word of hope for God’s tired and weary people.