The turning of the tide
Having immersed myself in the book of Isaiah for quite a long time now I’ve come to get a deeper appreciation of its overall message. Although directed towards people long ago the words of the prophet speak to us today in a way that is so modern and relevant. The book is famous for its two parts – Isaiah 1-39, or First Isaiah, and Isaiah 40-66, Second Isaiah (it’s interesting that the structure mirrors that of the whole Bible). The first half is dedicated to the immediate crisis of the 8th century BC in which Isaiah found himself – a great, merciless enemy was coming against the land of Judah – Sennacherib and the Neo-Assyrians – destroying all in their path and making a beeline for the capital Jerusalem. The sense of coming dread fills the pages of the prophet and the responses of those in the city range from complacency to conspiracy, from terror to quiet confidence. It is the picture of the world in which we live, particularly in times of crisis. First Isaiah ends in a short chapter, Isaiah 39, with a terrible warning that despite their miraculous escape from the Assyrians, Jerusalem would face an even greater enemy in the coming of the Babylonians.
The gap between chapters 39 and 40 represents over 150 years and Isaiah speaks to a people now in exile, suffering in a land far from home. Jerusalem lay in ruins, devastated by the forces of Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. The articles of the temple were destroyed or carried off to Babylon, the temple itself was burned to the ground and those not killed were carried off into a life of exile. It is in this terrible, seemingly hopeless aftermath that the words of the prophet ring out, directed to a people of the future;
‘Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.’ (Isaiah 40:1)
All that follows represents a powerful message of hope to God’s people. Isaiah speaks into a coming historical moment, in which God’s people are going to be suddenly, and unexpectedly set free – the tide was about to turn and God was about to do something new;
‘“From now on I will tell you of new things,
of hidden things unknown to you.
They are created now, and not long ago;
you have not heard of them before today.”’ (Isaiah 48:6-7)
Cyrus the king of Persia, named in the book of Isaiah long before he was born, would come with the help of the Medes, sack Babylon and end the rule of the cruel Babylonians in the Near East. He foreshadows Christ and represents an unexpected liberator, whose decree, famously, allows the captive people of Judah to return home to their land and rebuild their temple and city (the subject of books like Ezra and Nehemiah).
Isaiah 40-66, then, resonates from beginning to end with this message of hope, God has a plan for his people that cannot be thwarted – in times of darkness morning comes, in times of grief comfort suddenly arrives and when despair sets in, hope breaks out from unexpected quarters. I pray we may take inspiration from God’s word today and ask him with confidence, in the face of a tiny yet fearful enemy, for a turning of the tide in our nation and our world.