Isaiah 40: On Wings Like Eagles

Isaiah 40: On Wings Like Eagles (audio/ mp3)

Isaiah 40: On Wings Like Eagles (study notes and worksheet / pdf)


Where we are:

Part 1: Judgment Part 2: Historical Interlude Part 3: Salvation
Chapters 1-35 Chapters 36-39 Chapters 40-66

When this takes place:

Chapter 40 begins the second major section of Isaiah and its prophecies deal less with Judah’s immediate plight than with its future deliverance and the worldwide impact on the coming of Messiah. This chapter likely is written late in the prophet’s life. It features “greater mellowness of style and tone” and is “less fiery and more tender and gentle than the former part” (Robert Jamieson, A.R. Fausset, David Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, S. Is 40:1).

Key verse

Isa. 40:31 – [B]ut those who trust in the Lord will renew their strength; they will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not faint.

Quick summary:

Captivity in Babylon is inevitable (see Isa. 39:7) but so is God’s graciousness to His people. Once He has judged the citizens of Judah for their idolatry and wickedness, He will restore them to their homeland and ultimately bring peace to the nations through the reign of the Messiah. When Isaiah writes these words, Judah still has a century of turmoil ahead and then 70 years of captivity in Babylon. Isaiah writes to encourage the people to live righteously in the present, confident in the sovereignty of God and comforted by the promise of future restoration.

Take note

This chapter highlights eight attributes of God, according to H.L. Willmington: 1. His mercy (vv. 1-2); 2. His glory, which includes a prophecy of John the Baptist as the forerunner of Messiah (vv. 3-5); 3).His eternality (vv. 6-9); 4. His gentleness (v. 11); 5. His omnipotence (vv. 10, 12, 26); 6. His omniscience (vv. 13-14); 7. His sovereignty (vv. 15-17, 21-24); and 8. His uniqueness (vv. 18-20, 25) (The Outline Bible, S. Is 40:18-20).

God’s Greatness, Man’s Comfort (Isa. 40:1-26)

Deliverance is coming (vv. 1-11). No doubt a time of trial is upon the people of Judah, and harsher days are coming. The Mosaic covenant makes it clear that God will bless His people if they obey Him; however, if they are rebellious He will curse them and eventually cast them out of the land (Deut. 28:15-68). A century from now Jerusalem will be sacked, the temple destroyed and the people carried away into captivity. But Isaiah’s message of comfort – the word “comfort” is used twice in verse one for emphasis – looks beyond this time of discipline to the day when the people’s sins are pardoned and they return to their homeland. The term “double for all her sins” (v. 2) does not mean the people are being punished more harshly than they deserve; rather, they are experiencing the “full” or “sufficient” level of discipline to carry out God’s purpose of purging them of idolatry (see, for example, how “double” is used in Isa. 61:7).

The “voice” in verse 3 is Isaiah’s in the immediate context. The citizens of Judah are in a spiritual wilderness, and the Lord’s prophetic voice through Isaiah calls them to repent and prepare for the coming of the Lord. In its fuller context, verses 3-5 speak of John the Baptist, as all the Gospel writers attest (Matt. 3:1-4; Mark 1:1-4; Luke 1:76-78; and John 1:23). In calling the people to “prepare the way of the Lord,” Isaiah draws on the custom of Eastern monarchs who “send men before them to prepare their way by removing stones, leveling rough places, filling up hollows, cleaning up trash and litter, and generally making the road pleasant and easy for the distinguished travelers and guests” (Manners & Customs of the Bible, Bridge-Logos Publishers, S. 361). Isaiah is not promoting works-based salvation. People are not saved from their sins by “cleaning up” their lives. Rather, their renewed faithfulness to the Lord is the result of His chastening work in His children’s lives.

In verses 6-8 another voice is heard. This time it is the voice of the Lord, urging Isaiah to “cry out” a message of contrast between man’s feebleness and God’s faithfulness. People are like grass or wildflowers that shoot up in the spring but fade beneath the blazing summer sun. In the same way, even the strongest people wilt beneath the “breath” of the Lord, who is sovereign over His creation. This should be a word of comfort to God’s people as they endure captivity in Babylon. God’s promises will never fail. He will restore His people to their homeland once He has finished correcting them.

The redeemed of Judah are instructed to climb out of the valley and ascend to the heights of Jerusalem, declaring the Lord’s victory. The defeat of the Babylonians will result in a restored homeland for God’s people. Even more important, the day is coming when Messiah

will defeat Satan and sin, restore sinners to a right relationship with God and reign on the throne of David. The nations will flood to Mt. Zion and pay homage to the King. Just as God wins battles by His strength (v. 10), He comforts people by His gentleness. Isaiah compares the Lord to a shepherd, who protects His flock, gathers the lambs in His arms, carries them in the fold of His garment, and gently leads the nursing ones. The image of the Lord as a shepherd is a major theme of Scripture and is most appropriately applied to the Messiah (see, for example, Ps. 23; Jer. 31:10; Ez. 34:12-14, 23, 31; Micah 5:4; John 10:11, 14-16; 1 Peter 2:25; 5:4).

God has no equal (vv. 12-26). This section of Isaiah’s message is meant to comfort the Lord’s people by reminding them that the God who created all things remains sovereign over His creation. The rhetorical questions Isaiah presents in verses 12-14 to encourage God’s children are similar to the questions God poses to Job, leading him to repent “in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Isaiah makes several points in this passage. First, the created order belongs to the Lord. Figuratively speaking, He holds all the earth’s waters in the palm of His hand and measures the starry heavens in the distance between His thumb and little finger (v. 12). Second, all wisdom and understanding belong to Him; He has no need of human or angelic counsel (v. 13). Third, the nations of the world are subject to Him. They are like “a drop in a bucket” or “a speck of dust on the scales” (v. 15).

Against this backdrop of God’s creative power and unchallenged authority, Isaiah illustrates the foolishness of those who trust in idols made of the earth’s elements, which God created, using skills that God gave them. “Who will you compare God with?” the prophet asks. “To an idol? To something that a smelter casts, and a metalworker plates with gold and makes silver welds for it? To one who shapes a pedestal, choosing wood that does not rot?” (vv. 19-20). Isaiah answers his own questions first, and then the Lord speaks. “Do you not know?” the prophet says. “Have you not heard? … God is enthroned above the circle of the earth … He stretches out the heavens like a thin cloth … He reduces princes to nothing and makes the judges of the earth to be irrational” (vv. 21-23). Then the Lord thunders, “Who will you compare Me to, or who is My equal?” (v. 25).

Isaiah closes this section with a call to the people to look up in wonder at the night sky. The Lord created the countless starry host and has given names to each of the blazing orbs, as the Psalmist notes in Psalm 147:4. Equally amazing, and incredibly comforting, is the knowledge that “Because of His great power and strength, not one of them is missing” (v. 26). In the face of invading armies and beneath the heavy hand of cruel captors, the citizens of Judah should look up because God will yet deliver them. “And if you ever feel so small that you wonder if God really cares about you personally, remember that He knows the name of every star (Isa. 40:26) and your name as well! (See John 10:3, 27.) The same God who numbers and names the stars can heal your broken heart” (Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Comforted,  S. Is 40:1).

Man’s Weakness, God’s Strength (Isa. 40:27-31)

This chapter ends with a problem and a promise. The problem is this: Having forgotten God’s wondrous attributes, the Israelites conclude that He neither knows nor cares about them. The promise is that if God’s people will only ask, He will restore their strength so that they soar like eagles and run like deer. D.A. Carson writes, “The wrong inference from God’s transcendence is that he is too great to care; the right one is that he is too great to fail” (New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, S. Is 40:27).

Isaiah calls the people by the familiar names “Jacob” and “Israel,” reminding them not only of their ancestry but of the unique name the Lord gave Jacob (Gen. 32:28). If “the everlasting God, the Creator of the whole earth” can wrestle all night with Jacob, He can certainly sustain the Israelites in their time of need and keep His covenant promises to them. The prophet reminds them that the Lord “never grows faint or weary” and that “there is no limit to his understanding” (Isa. 40:28). Isaiah’s testimony of God’s faithfulness – “He gives strength to the weary and strengthens the powerless” (v. 29) – is echoed by the apostle Paul as he struggles with his “thorn in the flesh.” Though he pleads with the Lord three times to remove the “messenger of Satan” tormenting him, the Lord replies, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Paul concludes, “Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weakness, so that Christ’s power may reside in me. So because of Christ, I am pleased in weaknesses, in insults, in catastrophes, in persecutions, and in pressures. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9-10).

Closing Thought

Warren Wiersbe notes: “‘I can plod,’ said William Carey, the father of modern missions. ‘That is my only genius. I can persevere in any definite pursuit. To this I owe everything.’ The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. The greatest heroes of faith are not always those who seem to be soaring; often it is they who are patiently plodding. As we wait on the Lord, He enables us not only to fly higher and run faster, but also to walk longer. Blessed are the plodders, for they eventually arrive at their destination” (Be Comforted, S. Is 40:1).

Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips