The Awesome Display of the Glory of God Saves Sinners
Zion, herald of good news, go up on a high mountain. . . . Say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” (Isa 40:9)
Main Idea: As the majestic glory of God in creation and redemption is proclaimed among the nations, weakened, idolatrous, dying sinners are saved, comforted, and strengthened.
- The Proclaimed Glory of God Comforts Sinners with Forgiveness (40:1-11).
- The comfort: an eternal word saves dying sinners.
- The central message: “Here is your God!”
- The stunning range of God: omnipotent gentleness!
- The Immeasurable Glory of God Dwarfs the Cosmos and the Nations (40:12-26).
- The immensity of God dwarfs the cosmos (40:12).
- The inscrutable wisdom of God humbles humanity (40:13-14).
- The infinite power of God towers over the nations (40:15-17).
- What can we possibly offer such a God (40:16-17)?
- God exposes the wretched folly of idolatry (40:18-20).
- God is actively sovereign over earth and heaven (40:21-26).
- The Limitless Glory of God Strengthens the Weary (40:27-31).
- God never forgets his people (40:27).
- God strengthens his people (40:28-31).
The Proclaimed Glory of God Comforts Sinners with Forgiveness
Isaiah 40 is one of the greatest chapters in the Bible. Its language travels to the distant boundaries of the universe, finding a limit to the stars. Its language also probes the arrogance of human pride, finding a limit to human life span, power, wisdom, and strength. The central theme of the chapter is the proclamation of the glory of God for the salvation of dying sinners. God is great—infinitely so—whether sinful humanity recognizes it or not. But the grace of God is unleashed into this sin-cursed and dying world specifically in this way: the eternal word of God proclaimed to sinners on the very topic of the glory of God. As sinners hear and believe that message, they are forgiven, comforted, and strengthened.
So the chapter begins with the urgent command of God to Isaiah, his prophet, and beyond him to all future messengers of the grace of God: “Comfort, comfort my people!” God wants Isaiah to tell them how determined he is to assure them of his forgiveness. The remnant of Judah, exiled in Babylon, will need to hear this message because they will be tempted to think God has forsaken them because of their sins (v. 27). God yearns that his crushed people, humbled and broken under his judgments, will see that atonement for their sins is God’s final purpose. So God tells Isaiah to speak tenderly to Jerusalem to assure her that her warfare is over and that she has received ample atonement from the Lord for all her sins.
What a poignant moment in this glorious book! For thirty-nine chapters Isaiah has exposed the wicked corruptions of Israel and Judah. Now, at last, Judah is assured that full atonement is provided for all her sins. For Christians who stand much further along the unfolding story of redemptive history, we know that this atonement can only have been provided by the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.
That God had in mind the work of Christ on the cross even when inspiring these words by Isaiah is plain from verses 3-5, a prophecy ascribed in every Gospel to the forerunner of Jesus Christ, John the Baptist (Matt 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4; John 1:23). John came to cry out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” This was not the work of a civil engineer, making literal highways in the wilderness, leveling mountains and filling in valleys. John fulfilled these words by preaching powerful messages of repentance for sin, baptism as a symbol of repentance, and a clear identification of the Son of God in his atoning work: “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The leveling of mountains was done by blasting away at the self-righteous Pharisees and Sadducees who felt no need of a Savior. The raising of valleys was done by giving hope to wretched sinners who felt no Savior was possible. So preachers today must do the same leveling and raising in their preaching: “Disturb the comfortable, and comfort the disturbed!”
The display of God’s glory is nowhere greater than at the cross of Christ! There we see all the attributes of God radiantly displayed—his love, mercy, grace, wisdom, power, wrath, justice, patience, etc. So Isaiah 40:5 gives us the centerpiece of the gospel: “The glory of the Lord will appear, and all humanity together will see it, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” In this “spoken word” of the Lord—the gospel of Christ—the glory of the Lord appears radiantly for all who hear and believe.
This comforting word of salvation is especially needed in our dying world. In Adam the whole world lies under the death penalty. All humanity is like grass, and all our glory withers like the flowers of the field (vv. 6-8). God wants his messengers to remind our arrogant race of this clear fact that we will all soon die. We flourish for a brief time: athletes win their gold medals, scientists do their research, young women perfect their beauty, conquerors build their empires. But human splendor all withers and dies in an instant when the breath of the Lord blows on it. By contrast, the glory of the Word of the Lord will never fade—it stands forever radiant and will outlast heaven and earth (Matt 24:35).
Zion (the people of God) is given the responsibility of loudly heralding this gospel from the highest mountain, beginning with the towns of Judah (v. 9): “Here is your God!” “Here [he] is” (Hb hinneh, traditionally “behold”) depicts an unveiling. God is hidden from our sight by our spiritual blindness, but when the Holy Spirit unveils Christ in the words of the gospel, we are able to see in our hearts “the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6).
Though this unveiling of the glory of God reaches its climax in Christ, it has been on display throughout redemptive history. God’s power over the rise and fall of the empires of humanity is a major theme in Isaiah 40, beginning in verse 10. Leading with the word “See” (hinneh again), Isaiah unveils God’s power to establish his kingdom, to judge his enemies, and to reward his servants. Yet amazingly, this same God who rules so powerfully also gently gathers weak lambs in his arms and tenderly leads those that are nursing (v. 11). This astonishing range of almighty God reminds me of the day I observed a powerful hurricane blow through my town, felling a gigantic oak tree near where I lived. Yet later that day, after the storm was over, I felt the gentlest breeze on my face and watched that breeze barely flutter the leaves of a sapling! So it is with Christ. He is the Good Shepherd who calls to his sheep, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest . . . because I am lowly and humble in heart” (Matt 11:28-29). He is also the terrifying King of kings with eyes of blazing fire who returns on a white horse at the head of the armies of heaven and destroys his enemies with the breath of his mouth (2 Thess 2:8; Rev 19:11-16).
The Immeasurable Glory of God Dwarfs the Cosmos and the Nations
The good news of forgiveness of sins is so difficult for sinners to believe that God lavishes a feast of words for the rest of the chapter to strengthen our faith. He leads by a series of six probing questions, all beginning with the word who. This is meant to humble the arrogance of humanity and put us in our place. God is so immense that he has measured the waters of the seven seas in his cupped hand, a staggering achievement because the ocean—more than six miles deep in places—dwarfs the tiny stature of a human being. If a person tried to scoop out even a bathtub full of water, it would probably take more than one thousand handfuls to empty the tub! Beyond this, God has marked off the cosmos with the breadth of his hand as well. Science has given us a sense of the staggering immensity of outer space, and we cannot conceive of the distances. The farthest any human being has ever traveled into space occurred when the astronauts of Apollo 13 were on the far side of the moon. Traveling at the same speed as the Apollo capsule, to reach our nearest star (Alpha Centauri, 4.3 light years away) we would have to travel 114,078 years. Cosmologists tell us the observable universe is 46 billion light years across (Lineweaver and Davis, “Misconceptions,” 43). Isaiah says a few of God’s handbreadths are all that it takes for him to measure it! God is also immense compared to the dry land on earth: he has gathered the dust of the earth in a measuring cup and weighed the mountains on a balance (v. 12). These anthropomorphic measurements relate not only God’s immensity, power, and knowledge but also his ownership of all creation down to the smallest detail. God proclaims these words to give his people a sense of his power to accomplish their salvation through all the twists and turns of history.
Therefore, Isaiah speaks next of the infinite depths of God’s mind. The universe testifies powerfully to the mind of the Lord: its complexity, immensity, power, balance, beauty, order. God uses this to challenge the human race: “Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord, or who gave him counsel? Who did he consult?” (vv. 13–14). I once heard Pastor Erwin Lutzer say, “Has it ever occurred to you that nothing has ever occurred to God?” God has never learned anything, and he never will. So no human being can teach God a single thing.
This is especially poignant in verse 14 when it says, “Who . . . taught him the paths of justice?” So often, the twists and turns of God’s paths in redemptive history are difficult to follow. As Paul said, “How unsearchable his judgments and untraceable his ways!” (Rom 11:33). That literally means God’s footsteps cannot be tracked by human reason—we can’t follow his train of thought. So, God’s orchestrating the slaughter by the Babylonians of all but a small remnant of his people might seem to some unjust and incomprehensible. The suffering of God’s missionaries to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth seems harsh, and the eternity of the torments of the damned has been called unjust by many. How much more the death of Jesus on the cross under the wrath of God made no sense to those who had hoped he would be the Redeemer of Israel. But no one can teach God the paths of justice, for his commitment to justice is displayed by the cross (Rom 3:25-26).
The immensity of God is also proclaimed specifically over the nations, which are merely a drop from a bucket and dust on the scales compared to him (Isa 40:15). If a man were carrying a bucket of water to a garden and a drop spilled on the way, would he try to reclaim that drop from the ground? That’s what the nations are in God’s sight. That means two things: (1) the combined power of the nations will not be able to stop God’s plan of redeeming his chosen people; (2) the combined wealth of the nations is not sufficient to honor God with a suitable offering (v. 16). Only the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ can equal the worth of God himself or cover the multitude of the sins of God’s people.
Despite this greatness of God, arrogant people have consistently rebelled and made their own gods to worship. There is nothing in the universe to which God can be compared, but the puny minds and limited powers of craftsmen make “gods” that steal the affections of people away from God who deserves them (vv. 18-20). God lines up these pathetic idols alongside himself, the God who rules the universe. How laughable that these lifeless idols must be nailed down so they won’t fall over (cf. 1 Sam 5:1-5)!
The true and living God needs no such help. Surely we have heard of him from the beginning of the world—his eternal power and divine nature are seen daily in creation (v. 22; Rom 1:20). This majestic God sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and all its people are like grasshoppers before him. The combined power of the grasshoppers would not be enough to turn him aside for an instant, but rather he would just laugh at their feeble rebellion (Ps 2:4). The heavens themselves are dynamic, being stretched out continually by God, for science reveals that the cosmos is expanding. If God can do that, then the princes and the rulers of the earth are as nothing to him! He is the very one who knit these people in their mothers’ wombs, and it is he who will take their final breaths from their mouths whenever he chooses. Their reign, however terrifying and seemingly powerful, is like a blink of an eye to him. As soon as they are planted, they wither and die (Isa 40:24). To the Judahites living in Babylon, they could read this and not tremble at the power of their Gentile captors.
So who can even remotely be compared to God? The gap between God and all created beings is infinite! God’s power and knowledge absolutely dwarf anything the human race can muster. God gave to Adam the task of naming the animals, but he alone can name all the stars, and by his power alone not one of them is missing from the night sky. Cosmologists tell us hundreds of billions of galaxies are in outer space, each with billions of stars. God has named each star, able to tell the difference from one to another, and by Christ he keeps each one burning (Heb 1:3).
The Limitless Glory of God Strengthens the Weary
The culmination of this stunning meditation on the greatness of God is provided to renew his weak, weary, and dejected people. God has already told them these things before (v. 28). But just as faith comes initially by hearing, so it is strengthened and nourished by hearing again. God’s chosen people throughout history (“Jacob” and “Israel”) have been tempted to think that their sufferings were hidden from God and their legal claim is passed over by God who has not noticed them, such as the unjust judge and the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8). Ultimately, God will see that they get justice. In the meantime, however, God has promised to give strength to his weak and weary people as they endure the sufferings of sanctification and gospel advance in this world. The Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, never grows weary for an instant—he is the everlasting God! He perfectly understands the needs of his people and of the hour. He gives strength to the weary and strengthens the powerless at every moment (v. 29). God’s people on earth need constant strengthening, whether we are elite soldiers or frail elderly people in a nursing home. God’s words recorded in this chapter convince us that this incomprehensibly majestic God is bending all the powers of his might and his mind toward our final salvation. By hearing him speak, we find our hearts strengthened in amazing ways, and we will resume our journey for his glory: we will soar on wings as eagles, we will run and not become weary, we will walk and not faint.
The central application of this chapter is to trust in Christ, the Redeemer, whose blood alone can atone for our sins. In Christ God has provided double for all our sins (Rom 3:24-26).
Second, we should expect the need for daily strengthening of our faith. At the end of the chapter the Lord speaks to us a humbling word, saying that everyone should expect to grow weak and weary in the Christian life. It is only as we listen to God’s messengers proclaiming the words “Here is your God!” that we will run and not become weary, we will walk and not faint. So we must be daily in the Word of God, and weekly under the hearing of faithful exposition of the Scriptures so our faith may be renewed.
Soaring above all this, however, is the simple concept that “God is the gospel!” The staggering majesty of God so unforgettably described in this chapter is the treasure we will be gazing at and gloating over in heaven forever. How rich we are to have this God—the God of Isaiah 40—as our eternal inheritance! We should be constantly meditating on the themes of God’s majesty described here: his immensity compared to heaven and earth; his awesome power and sovereign control over the nations; his direct power over the princes of the earth; his inscrutable wisdom and the fact that no human being can ever be God’s counselor. The greater God appears to us, the smaller our afflictions will seem.
This should also affect our prayer lives. We should pray all the more confidently to such a God as this because we know he can do anything. We should also pray all the more humbly knowing he can learn nothing from us.
Next, we should be reminded constantly of our mortality. Psalm 90:12 says we should number our days to gain a heart of wisdom. We are like grass, and all our glory is like the flowers of the field. We should not be dismayed at the ravages of aging—the mind’s diminished powers, the face’s fading beauty, the body’s decreased powers. We should not seek to stem this inevitable tide by surgery or Botox treatments. Rather, we should set our hope fully on the grace to be given us when Jesus Christ returns.
Finally, we should seek to embrace the entire range of the personhood of God in this chapter: both his terrifying immensity and power and his astonishing gentleness to his weak sheep.
Reflect and Discuss
- How would meditating on God’s amazing attributes on display in this chapter help people go through times of suffering?
- How do verses 1-2 point directly to the cross of Jesus Christ as the atonement for our sins?
- How did John the Baptist fulfill the predictions of Isaiah 40:3-5? How can preachers of the gospel seek to level mountains and raise valleys now?
- How is the glory of the Lord revealed in the restoration of the Jews to the promised land after Babylon? How is it more clearly revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ?
- Why is the humbling of verses 6-8 so necessary, especially because so many people try to fight the aging process?
- How do verses 6-8 exalt the greatness of God’s eternal Word? How does this passage relate to Matthew 24:35?
- How is Isaiah 40:9 in many ways the centerpiece to the whole chapter? What does “Here is your God!” mean? Since God is invisible, how does the ministry of the Word fit into that?
- How does verse 11 encourage you in your life? How does it relate to Jesus Christ and to his words in Matthew 11:28-30?
- How does Isaiah 40:12-17,21-26 show the infinite greatness of almighty God?
- How do verses 27-31 personally encourage you to seek God when feeling weary and weak?