Kevin DeYoung / Mar 12, 2017 / Isaiah 40:9-31
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You may not have realized it, but Friday was Chuck Norris’ birthday. The Air Force veteran, actor, martial arts expert, and all-around super-amazing tough guy turned 77. Wouldn’t you like to look that good at 77? Anyway, if you’ve heard any of the many Chuck Norris jokes going around, you can imagine how the internet was filled with tales of his amazing birth and lifelong exploits. “Chuck Norris turns 77 years old today; or rather, 77 turns Chuck Norris.” “Chuck Norris built the hospital he was born in.” “On his birthday, Chuck Norris selects one lucky child to be thrown into the sun.” “Time waits for no man, unless that man is Chuck Norris.” “There is no theory of evolution—just a list of creatures that Chuck Norris allows to live.” “When Chuck Norris falls into water, he doesn’t get wet. Water gets Chuck Norris.” “Chuck Norris can slam a revolving door.” “Santa Claus asks Chuck Norris for presents.” “Chuck Norris doesn’t dial the wrong number. You answer the wrong phone.” There are hundreds more.
The joke—which I’m ruining by explaining it, of course—is that a 77-year-old actor is not the most astounding, powerful, and stupendously awesome being in the universe. The lines are funny because they’re nonsensical and absurd. I’m sure Chuck Norris is a great guy, but we will be disappointed if we think that life’s difficulties and disappointments can be greatly helped by beholding Chuck Norris or the greatness and giftedness of any of God’s other created things.
But what about the Creator himself? What if we were to behold the one about whom there are no exaggerations or absurd claims of greatness? He is more sovereign, powerful, and glorious than anyone can describe or even imagine. When we are tempted to look at our lives and see reasons to be afraid, panic, and despair, the Bible simply says, “Look up! Behold your God!”
One of the reasons that I’m preaching from Isaiah 40 is that it was the passage I preached from 13 Aprils ago, when I was a pastoral candidate here as a little, 26-year-old kid.
I also wanted to go here because we’re going to jump ahead in Exodus (to chapters 32-34) and look at all the chapters surrounding the Golden Calf incident. Then the plan is to jump ahead to the very end of the book (Exodus 40). Jumping ahead to the Golden Calf, a tale of sin and idolatry, just didn’t seem to be the right note for this morning.
Most importantly, I wanted us to study these verses together because I know of no better passage in the Bible to show that God is very big, that we are very small, and that God being very big is actually really good news. Follow along as I read:
Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.
Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord, or what man shows him his counsel? Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding? Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales; behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust. Lebanon would not suffice for fuel, nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering. All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.
To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him? An idol! A craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and casts for it silver chains. He who is too impoverished for an offering chooses wood that will not rot; he seeks out a skillful craftsman to set up an idol that will not move.
Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.
Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows on them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name; by the greatness of his might and because he is strong in power, not one is missing.
Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 40:9-31
Here’s the point, both of this passage and of this sermon: the greatness of God is good news for weary people who wait for him. In one sense, no other application is necessary. Look up and behold your God. See him God in his power and unmatched majesty and might. See all that this God is for you and all those who wait for him.
Let’s look at each of those elements: first, the greatness of God; second, the weakness of human beings; and third, how the former is good news for the latter.
The Greatness of God
Look at all the ways that the greatness of God is displayed and celebrated in this chapter (beginning in verse 12)! First, it mentions creation. God holds the waters “in the hollow of his hand…” Most of you have been to Lake Michigan, and many of you have been to a vast ocean. You cannot swim across an ocean, or begin to fathom the depth and breadth of the water. Though God, of course, doesn’t really have arms and hands, this passage describes him in that way so that we might understand him. He is pictured as one who reaches down from heaven, scooping up that which seems to us to be fathomless deeps in the hollow of his hand, just as you would in the morning to splash your face with cold water.
God has measured out the heavens. He used a divine tape measure to measure out that which seems unimaginably big. In fact, the most powerful telescopes in the universe haven’t even reached the beginning of the edge of the universe.
God puts the dust of the earth in his measuring cup. It’s as if he’s weighing the Rockies, the Himalayas, the Andes, and the Alps in a cute little kitchen scale—the kind that no one uses anymore, but which you have as a decorative piece in your kitchen because Joanna Gaines would like it. It’s child’s play to him.
Our 9-year-old got up yesterday, eager to make pancakes for everyone. She did a good job measuring out all of the flour, the milk, and the eggs; stirring them together; and getting the measuring scoop to put batter on the griddle to make the little silver dollar pancakes. A child can do it. Similarly, God looks at these things in creation, which are unthinkably grand, and says, “Kids’ play.”
His wisdom (vv. 13-14) cannot be measured. The depths of his might cannot be contained. He cannot be intimidated or manipulated. No one can fathom the reaches of his wisdom or give him counsel. He doesn’t need to put his finger to the wind. He’s not interested in opinion polls or approval ratings, and he isn’t working with focus groups or consultants.
In Ancient Near Eastern mythology (such as that of the Babylonians), it was very common for gods and goddesses to have some sort of consort or counsel—another divine being who helped them in the work of creation. God doesn’t need to overcome any rival powers, as gods did in the Canaanite myths. He doesn’t ask for advice. He isn’t needy or lonely. He isn’t desperate for our help. The God described here doesn’t grow up, since he’s already perfect. He doesn’t learn, since his knowledge is limitless. He doesn’t increase in understanding, since he already knows—and indeed, plans—the end from the beginning.
We read of the nations as “a drop from a bucket…” If the oceans can be held in the hollow of God’s hand, then what are the nations? They’re just a little bit of splashing—just “dust on the scales…” Some of us know what dust is like from those places high up on the top of the ledge or on the piano. Even in the dustiest house, you just grab some spray and a rag, and it’s gone. It’s that easy. So it is with God and the nations. “But China and India have a billion people! The United States has the biggest economy! We spend as much as the next seven nations combined on our military. We have great strength!” It’s just a drop—just dust.
“Lebanon would not suffice for fuel…” Lebanon was known as the great land of forests. It’s where kings would go to harvest the trees to build their palaces. But that’s not enough wood to light a tiny fire to keep God warm at night. In fact, all of the animals in all of the earth are not enough sacrifices for him. How can a drop from a bucket limit the one who measures the oceans in his hands? How can dust on the scales be a bother to the one who takes up islands and coastlands as if they were but dust?
In verse 18, God says, “Let me ask you another question. Who is like me? An idol? That’s laughable.” He describes a situation: you impoverish yourself to get the finest things and make an idol. You get the best craftsmen on the job, who overlays it with precious metals. Then you step back to see this thing, which you have labored for with all of your money, might, and strength—and what do you get? A pretty statue that cannot speak, think, or act.
God comes with more questions in verses 21-24. The heart of the questions is simply, “Don’t you get it?” “Don’t you get it? Haven’t you heard? Haven’t you been told from the beginning? Haven’t you understood from the foundations of the earth what this God of yours is like? He is never surprised, caught off guard, perplexed, or stumped. The times when we just keep cycling things around and around in our heads and hearts—“I can’t make sense of it, get out of it, or see myself free from it”—are not confusing to God. He sees the end from the beginning. He knows what was, what is, and what shall be.
Surely it’s true of every one of us, no matter how rich and robust our theology might be, that our conception of God is too small. That doesn’t mean that we are insignificant. It means that, in comparison to God, we’re incredibly tiny. He sits above the earth, using it as a footstool to prop up his divine legs. He looks down and sees us little grasshoppers, anxiously chirping, flirting, floating, and flapping our wings about in a flurry of activity. We’re so small and so concerned.
God parades the heavens across the sky like a curtain! Any of you who have ever had the great privilege of babysitting for us know that my wife gives you all the important instructions. I only tell you one thing: make sure that you pull the curtains to when it gets dark. That’s my chore. In the morning, I open the curtains; at night, I’m very fastidious about pulling the curtains shut. There aren’t many things that we husbands can do, but that we can do triumphantly! It’s not a very difficult task—that’s why I do it. You just walk over to one, reach up, and then walk to the next one. It takes three minutes. God stretches out the heavens in the same way that you would walk up and close the curtains. It’s not a difficult thing for him.
He superintends all things, from the heavens above to specific kings and kingdoms here on earth. He “brings princes to nothing, and makes rulers of the earth as emptiness.” They’re toppled like plants, as some of your plants and trees were toppled this week as the wind ripped through.
Contrast all of this with what God says about his word:
All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. Isaiah 40:6b-8
If the Lord should tarry, you and I will pass on from this scene to another place (hopefully to that heavenly place). No matter how brightly we shined, how green we were in our heyday of grassiness, and how bright the bloom of our flower might have seemed, it’s but a moment. Then it’s gone.
When the flowers come up in a month or two, people will rush over to look at it and take pictures. Some people will go over to Holland to see the tulip time. Sometimes it’s a stem festival; other times, it’s buds. You never know. There’s just a little window when those things go up and are beautiful. They’re there for weeks, and then they’re gone. But the word of God remains forever.
In verse 25, he asks the question again:
To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One. Isaiah 40:25
There are no analogies for God. You cannot say, “Well, have you met Baal? Can I introduce you to Shiva? Can I tell you about Allah? Let me introduce you to the President! Have you thought of our movie stars, singers, athletes, authors, and artists?” There is no one to be compared to God!
It says that he calls out the hosts—that is, the stars of heaven—by their names. Do you know how many stars there are in the heavens? No, you don’t. No one does. There was a big research project a few years ago that tried to estimate whether there are more stars in the heavens or grains of sand on the earth. Scientists feel pretty confident in their conclusion that there are, in fact, more stars! You’ve been to beaches. There’s a lot of sand. In fact, it’s still in between your toes somewhere! But there are still more stars!
We’re in the Milky Way Galaxy, which has around 300 billion stars. Through the most powerful telescopes, we can see maybe 100 billion galaxies (and some scientists estimate that there may be as many as 10 trillion galaxies that are beyond the observable area!). Let’s just think: 100 billion galaxies of 300 billion stars. There are 7.5 billion people in the world. Let’s be generous and round that up to 10 billion. That means that every person on this planet could get 10 galaxies, each of which has 300 billion stars (some less, some more). Is that enough to keep you busy? But God “brings out their host by number, calling them all by name.”
Without any instruments, on a very dark night in a remote place, you might be able to see 5,000-7,000 stars. The sky looks absolutely on fire with just those few thousand. But there are 100 billion galaxies, and perhaps 10 trillion beyond that, each filled with hundreds of billions of stars that the Lord knows and calls out by name. From start to finish, this is a picture of a God who presides over the world with consummate ease.
The Weakness of Human Beings
By comparison, we see the weakness of human beings. We see two categories of human beings here. First, we see small people who think they are big-shots. Think of all the very important people in verses 16, 17, and 23. The princes, kings, rulers, and leaders are brought to nothing.
You should all see “Chariots of Fire” sometime, if you haven’t. I was speaking to a college group a few weeks ago, and I talked about Eric Liddell. I asked, “How many of you have seen ‘Chariots of Fire’?” Out of 300 people, about four hands went up. What are we doing with discipleship? Go see it!
I’m sure this didn’t happen quite this way, but it’s a great scene nonetheless: Eric Liddell wasn’t running on Sunday. They’re showing the races of others running then, but they show him standing up in this very exalted pulpit. He reads, fittingly, from Isaiah 40: “Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket…[he] brings princes to nothing, and makes rulers of the earth as emptiness.” It’s a great scene, having just seen all of the kings and leaders in Great Britain who were pressuring him to run. They were but nothing.
But the picture here is not ultimately of little, insignificant people. That’s how many people would look at it: “God is great, so we cower then in fear from him. He is great. We have problems. He is too big for our problems. He has nothing to do with us. We’re insignificant little grasshoppers, and he just marches through looking to stomp us.”
No, we see a second category of weakness here: weary people who wait for him. If you’re here this morning, feeling small, weak, and weary—if you’re well aware of problems in your life that are much, much bigger than pastoral transitions—if you’re saying to yourself, “Now what?!”, it can feel like God is telling you, “Here’s what you’ve got to do! Here’s how you’ve got to work! Here’s what you have to try!” That’s not what he says first. He simply simply says, “Behold. Open your eyes!”
Is this sermon about a pastor going to another church? I suppose it might be, but it’s mostly not. It’s about the life we all live—one that very often doesn’t look the way we thought it would. The Bible speaks into that. Instead of saying, “Will you just keep looking and digging harder until you finally see the life, somewhere deep inside you?”, he says, “Once you start, don’t look inside. Don’t look down. Don’t look harder. Look up, and behold your God.
Good News for Those Who Wait on God
The greatness of God is good news for the weary people who wait for him. You see in verse 9: “Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news…” “Don’t be afraid. Make sure everyone in Israel gets this news: ‘[God’s] reward is with him, and his recompense before him.’” What does that mean? It means that his reward is his own people—those whose victory he has won and purchased. They are coming with him. The transcendence of God is the best news for trampled people.
How does his greatness connect to our weakness? It isn’t in mockery, but in mercy. The ruling arm that’s so strong and mighty is the same arm that will carry us (vv. 10-11). The strong one, who is beyond compare, is our good shepherd. He will gather, carry, and lead us. This description of the greatness of God is a response to a question, which we finally see in verse 27: “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord…’?” “He doesn’t hear or care. It’s disregarded by my God. He’s not looking down upon us.” Then God says, with all of his might and tenderness, “Little sheep. Have you not known? Can you not hear? Don’t you know what has been told to you of this great God? Imagine not knowing this good news.”
Imagine that somewhere, someone who worked on the film “Moonlight” still thinks they didn’t win the Best Picture. Some of you saw that big mishap at the Oscars, where they got the wrong envelope, called one movie, and it was actually another movie. Imagine that there was somebody who was still thinking, “Aww, man…”, and someone else came up and said, “Don’t you know? You didn’t hear?!”
Or think of a few Falls ago. I turned off the radio with 10 seconds left in the game. All Michigan had to do was punt. Then my phone started blowing up with texts: “Don’t you know?!”
In the same way, God says, “You have a complaint. I hear it. But have you forgotten? Haven’t you heard the news? Our God is an everlasting God. He’s the creator. He doesn’t have off days, or get sick, stressed out, or tired. He never goes on vacation or needs a study break. Even the youths and the strong ones get tired and faint—even those who are at their peak of physical strength.”
I was so humbled one time last year. I was riding my bike. I had all my bike getup on. I’m bending down, wearing my helmet, just cruising down this path here. And a college guy in a flannel shirt, with a bike that had a basket, passed me. Then he had the audacity to turn around and say, “Have a good day!” I thought, “Someday, you too will grow weak.”
This description here is basically of Olympians. The best of the best. The Michael Phelpses and Allyson Felixes. They’re in their prime. But they get tired, sick, and injured. They stumble and fall. Even they reach their limits. Even mothers reach their limits!
But God has no limits and he gives strength to those who wait for him. How does he strengthen us? Certainly, in one sense, it’s by the Spirit’s strengthening of that inner being, as Ephesians 3 tells us. But there’s something else in view here: he strengthens us as we wait, because there is strength in the waiting.
You could almost translate this with a different word: “hope”. Waiting may sound like a passive activity, but it’s not. When you’re waiting for your mom to come home, you’re looking out the window, thinking, “Is that her car?” When you’re waiting for your kid to text, you’re looking at your phone, thinking, “I haven’t heard anything yet.” It’s very active. It’s also one of the most difficult things we do as Christians. But there’s both an anticipation and an expectation. Even when you’re discouraged, depressed, and despondent, there’s the faintest glimmer of what we call hope in the waiting.
Christians may often be discouraged, but other times encouraged. We will sometimes feel optimistic; sometimes, pessimistic. We will sometimes be sad and scared. But we always have reason for hope. Human beings can endure almost any kind of deprivation and grief if there is hope; fighting fears with faith; and the thought, “I believe; help my unbelief. Yes, there is a God. He is great. He sees, knows, and hears. He is with me. He will get me to the finish line.” The greatness of God is good news for weary people who wait for him.
…he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:6b
Don’t look down. Look up, and behold your God.
Let’s pray. Our Father in heaven, what a gift you have given us in your word. We have in writing a glimpse of your glory. Thank you that you have given us eyes to see, and ears to hear. May you give us hearts to believe and receive that word, and voices that we may sing. In Jesus we pray, amen.
Transcription and editing provided by 10:17 Transcription
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.