"Don't You Know? Haven't You Heard? Bible Study on Isaiah 40:21-31
February 4, 2021, 10:00 AM

Dear Members & Friends:

I invite you to read the following passage from Isaiah 40:21-31 (International Children's Bible).

21 Surely you know. Surely you have heard.
    Surely in the beginning someone told you.
    Surely you understand how the earth was created.
22 God sits on his throne above the circle of the earth.
    And compared to him, people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the skies like a piece of cloth.
    He spreads them out like a tent to sit under.
23 He makes rulers unimportant.
    He makes the judges of this world worth nothing.
24 They are like plants that are placed in the ground.
    They are like seeds that are planted.
As soon as they begin to grow strong,
    he blows on them and they die.
    The wind blows them away like chaff.

25 God, the Holy One, says, “Can you compare me to anyone?
    Is anyone equal to me?”
26 Look up to the skies.
    Who created all these stars?
He leads out all the army of heaven one by one.
    He calls all the stars by name.
He is very strong and full of power.
    So not one of them is missing.

27 People of Jacob, why do you complain?
    People of Israel, why do you say,
“The Lord does not see what happens to me.
    He does not care if I am treated fairly”?
28 Surely you know.
    Surely you have heard.
The Lord is the God who lives forever.
    He created all the world.
He does not become tired or need to rest.                                                                                                                                          No one can understand how great his wisdom is.
29 The Lord gives strength to those who are tired.
    He gives more power to those who are weak.
30 Even boys become tired and need to rest.
    Even young men trip and fall.
31 But the people who trust the Lord will become strong again.
They will be able to rise up as an eagle in the sky.
    They will run without needing rest.
    They will walk without becoming tired.

What is the historical context of this powerful and reassuring text from Isaiah?

As both Carsten Bryant and Victor Gold point out, the historical context is the promised return of the exiles from Babylonian captivity.  From 586-539 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era), the key leaders of Israel and powerful citizens of Jerusalem and Judah had been deported to Babylon.  This was the exile announced by God through First Isaiah (Isaiah son of Amoz - 742-687 B.C.E.)  in chapters 1-39 as punishment for their sinfulness, for injustice and oppression and neglect of the poor, for idolatry and wantonness.  The Babylonian imperial army laid waste to Jerusalem and burned the Temple to the ground, and First Isaiah understood this to be the righteous judgment of Almighty God, fitting recompense.  Away were the lettered and powerful carried into exile.  By the rivers of Babylon, the exiles sat and wept, singing the songs of Zion (read Psalm 137).

But beginning with Isaiah chapter 40, we hear a new voice: "Comfort, comfort my people!" says your God" (Isaiah 40:1).  It is the voice of Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55), announcing to the exiles that the time of judgment has passed.  God's tone has not only changed -- "Speak compassionately to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended, that her penalty has been paid" -- but we even hear something of a note of questioning God's judgment, wondering if the principle of proportionality has truly been upheld through these long years of captivity in a faraway pagan land -- "she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins!" (Isaiah 40:2)

The means of comforting Israel is theological.  What these exiles need to hear, what they need to know and believe, what they need to trust and hold on to is the truth about who their God is.  It's the reassurance that there is no one nowhere who can compare with the God of Israel.

In the verses immediately preceding Isaiah 40:21-31, the prophet declares that "all the nations," the nations which have been trammeling over Israel, deporting Israel's people, holding them captive, "are like noting before God" (Isaiah 40:17).  Isaiah does not resign himself to the comparatively weaker claim that the Holy One of Israel is the most powerful God among other gods but makes the bold declaration that the gods of the other nations are fictions, mere glittery artifacts that "won't move" (Isaiah 40:20).

Then verse 21 opens with scoffing rhetorical questions; "Don't you know?  Haven't you heard?  Wasn't it announced to you from the beginning?  Haven't you understood since the earth was founded?" (Common English Bible)  Israel is God's chosen people, the ones to whom Yahweh (I will be what I am) revealed the Divine Name, the tellers of the story of the Exodus -- of course, Israel should know how great the LORD is.

To make sure, Second Isaiah employs a dramatic hyperbole of contrasts.  "God sits on his throne above the circle of the earth.  And compared to God, people are like grasshoppers.  God stretches out the skies like a piece of cloth.  God spreads them out like a tent to sit under" (Isaiah 40:22).  This is a poetic way of saying that the earth cannot contain God, that God transcends it.  Before such a God, "it's inhabitants are like locusts" (Common English Bible).  While ordinary folks pale before the Almighty Sovereign of Israel, even more so do those whom the world esteems as important, influential, as powerful: "God makes rulers unimportant.  God makes the judges of this world worth nothing.  They are like plants that are placed in the ground.  They are like seeds that are planted.  As soon as they begin to grow strong, the Holy One blows on them and they die.  The wind blows them away like cut grass."  As one of our Zoom Bible Study participants commented, "Verses 23 and 24 ought to be put on a large sign and hung in the halls of Congress."  Second Isaiah again throws down the gauntlet: "God, the Holy One says, 'Can you compare me to anyone?  Is anyone equal to me?'"

Israel's God is not just some local deity, confined to a specific country.  From the kingdoms, people, and ends of the earth, Second Isaiah extends the vision out to the whole cosmos, the ever-expanding universe itself.  Whereas the earth's commanders might be able to summon some soldiers, Yahweh, the LORD summons the heavenly bodies, the stars, at a command as the Universal Sovereign's good creation.  Unlike any commander of an earthly army, God Almighty knows the name of each and every one of those stars (Isaiah 40:26).  It is by God's omnipotence and universal sovereignty that the very stars in the sky are able to carry on their courses, whizzing through galaxies, tumbling into black holes, or flinging planets along their ways.

With this kind of loving attention for the stars, then imagine how God feels about God's chosen ones.  Isaiah begins to challenge those claims of divine neglect by repeating those initial questions in Isaiah 40:21 in verse 28: "Don't you get it?  Haven't you been listening?" (my paraphrase of verse 21)

The God of Israel is not some detached, uncaring, all-powerful deity who set the universe in motion and then stepped out of reach to watch what happens.  "The Lord gives strength to those who are tired.  God gives more power to those who are weak" (Isaiah 40:29).  Thus, Second Isaiah brings together God's transcendence -- greater than the kingdoms, the earth, the stars -- with God's immanence.  With Isaiah, we can proclaim God is great, and God is near, knows what we need and provides accordingly. "But the people who trust ("hope" is used in other translations) the Lord sound almost superhuman in Isaiah's portrayal, for they "will renew their strength, they will fly up on wings like eagles; they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary" (Isaiah 40:31 - Common English Bible).

As followers of the way of Jesus, we read Isaiah 40:21-31 through the lens of the incarnation.  In the life of Jesus of Nazareth, we believe that God joined us on the ground in our weakness, tiredness, and weariness to break the reign of sin and death in our bodies and to make us part of Christ's glorious resurrection.  That's what gives us hope!


Pastor Greg Rupright


02-05-2021 at 6:01 PM
Pat May
Well presented and clearly explained
Thanks as always, Greg!
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