Epiphany 5 • Isaiah 40:21–31 • February 5, 2012
by Reed Lessing
“The Fowlest Sermon”
At one time, during the Davidic/Solomonic era, Israel had been on top of the ancient Near Eastern world. The nation appeared to have everything (see Romans 9:4–5). The ironic twist about Israel’s history, however, is that the oppressed in Egypt became oppressors of one another in the promised land. In many ways, especially beginning with Solomon, Jerusalem became the new Egypt, and everything began to fall apart.
In 587 BC Yahweh’s judgment was to orchestrate the Babylonian exile. Despondent and despairing, those stuck in Babylon lost all hope. Yet Yahweh still “remembered his covenant and relented according to the abundance of his loyal love” (Ps 106:46). Isaiah 40–55 announces this amazing act of grace!
Context in Isaiah 40–55
In Isaiah 40:1–11 Yahweh takes up the question, “Will you save us?” Now in Isaiah 40:12–31 he addresses the question, “Can you save us?” In both cases, he answers with a resounding “yes!” The second part of chapter 40 is outlined as follows:
40:12–17 Yahweh’s transcendence over the nations
40:18–20 Yahweh’s transcendence over idols
40:21–24 Yahweh’s transcendence over rulers
40:25–26 Yahweh, the transcendent Creator
40:27–31 Yahweh’s transcendent power for his people
Comments on the Text
Isaiah 40:22: The Qal participle יֹּשֵׁב (“the one who is dwelling”) is the first of many participles in Isaiah 40–55 that affirm Yahweh’s ongoing activity in the world (e.g., Is 40:26, 28–30; 44:24–28; 46:10–11). His lordship is not that of a deist watchmaker who sets the world ticking and then walks away.
Isaiah 40:24: The verb Isaiah employs denoting “to blow” (נָשַׁף)” only appears again in Exodus 15:10. In this way, Israel is called to look at the Babylonian superpower from the perspective of what Yahweh did to the superpower Egypt at the Red Sea. In doing so, the exiles will realize that there is only one real superpower, Yahweh!
Isaiah 40:26: Since the Babylonians were astrologers and much of their intellectual and religious life was tied to astral worship (Is 47:13), the prophet maintains that stars do not rule history. Yahweh created every star and calls each one by name (cf. Ps 147:4). And, if he can recall each star by its name, how could he ever forget Israel (Is 49:14) whom he also calls by name (Is 43:1)?
Isaiah 40:28: The title—“God of eternity”—appears only here in the OT. In Isaiah 40–55, Yahweh’s word is also everlasting (Is 40:8), as is his salvation (Is 45:17; 51:6), righteousness (Is 51:8), covenant love (Is 54:8) and the Davidic covenant he cuts with all people (Is 55:3). Contrast this with Babylon’s claim, “I am forever” (Is 47:7). How blasphemous!
Isaiah 40:31: Waiting on Yahweh involves three related ideas: (1) the humble admission that there are no other options, (2) the refusal to engage in frantic worry, and (3) the confidence that Yahweh will come through in his time as he has promised.
Homiletical Development of the Sermon
This is a fowl sermon, but the fowl is not spelled F-O-U-L. That kind of foul is reserved for baseballs that don’t stay between chalk lines. This fowl is spelled F-O-W-L as in, you guessed it, birds.
People in the ancient Near East often used birds to make a point. In Exodus 19:4 Yahweh tells Moses: “You have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings.” Outside of the OT, and during Isaiah’s time, the Assyrian King Sennacherib says he shut up Hezekiah “in the midst of Jerusalem, like a bird in a cage.” So in this sermon birds will also be used to make a point or two.
Isaiah is addressing those who knew of the Exodus Eagle’s steadfast love demonstrated when he delivered their fathers from bondage in Egypt. He is also addressing those who would know of the bird-cage of captivity, bound by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. Here, use ideas from the historical context detailed above.
Then use different birds to discuss Israel’s sins that brought about the exile. For example a peacock is consumed with self (e.g., Zion’s women in Is 3:16–26; 4:1); a chicken grubs for worms and lives the low life (e.g., Is 5:20–23); and a crow crows and makes loud and obnoxious noises but doesn’t accomplish anything (e.g., Is 1:10–15).
We can be dirty birds as well. Connect Israel’s sins with ours.
What does Isaiah do? He points us to Yahweh. See the context of Isaiah 40:12–31 above and draw pertinent ideas from the textual notes.
Yahweh’s word in Isaiah 40:31 is “wait.” Eagles soar only as they position themselves high on a rock and wait and when the wind comes they are borne aloft. The power comes from the wind beneath their wings.
In the season of Epiphany, we stand after the Servant’s birth and baptism and await his crucifixion, resurrection and glorification. He does all of this so that the wind may blow. “For the wind blows wherever it pleases,” Jesus once told Nicodemus (Jn 3:8). And it pleases the wind to blow in the gospel preached in conformity with a pure understanding of it and the sacraments administered in accordance with the divine Word. The wind blows where Jesus is forgiving sins.
What is the result? Dare I say it, a fowl life? But this is not any ordinary fowl. We are free to soar on wings like eagles. Eagles have the most powerful eyesight of any bird (see Job 39:29). From high in the sky an eagle can see a rabbit two miles away. The Hebrew writer speaks of another eagle, ol’ eagle eye Moses (see Heb 11:27).
Eagles are the most committed of all birds (see Dt 32:11). The eagle will never forsake her young. That’s why eagle Paul can speak of radical commitment from his prison in Rome (see 2 Tm 4:7).
Eagles stay fresh and energized (see Ps 103:5). Every day the eagle preens himself, breathing upon his feathers because over the night they become matted and stuck to each other. See Paul’s discussion on daily renewal in 2 Corinthians 4:16.
No wonder the proverb writer is so awed with the eagle (Prv 30:18–19). We are no longer dirty birds (see 2 Cor 5:17). All this is not by might and not by power, but by Yahweh’s Spirit that blows even now loving and freeing and lifting us in the name of Jesus to take us out of exile and toward our heavenly promised land.