Friday, February 21, 2014

God of all Comfort

When I look at the world today, I see so much pain. Many times the hurt people suffer is a direct or indirect consequence of their own sin.  Divorce runs rampant, and custody battles are a nightmare for parents and children alike.  Cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs wreak havoc on bodies even years after the habit is kicked.  When girls give themselves to guys who later throw them aside, they feel guilt and shame for months. Sometimes it is hard to have compassion on people who are suffering because of their own actions, but the God we serve is the God of comfort, even to people mired in the pain that their sin brings.  

The children of Israel certainly suffered for their wrongs.  The first half of the book of Isaiah is devoted to telling the nations of their sins and how they would be punished.  Judah's section is pretty full.  They have stopped following God to chase after idols and their own pleasures.  They have neglected the poor and needy in their midst. They have ignored the law of Moses (Isaiah 1&5).  As a result, God was going to use Babylon to punish them, by carrying them into exile.  

On this account the anger of the LORD has burned against His people, And He has stretched out His hand against them and struck them down. And the mountains quaked, and their corpses lay like refuse in the middle of the streets. For all this His anger is not spent, But His hand is still stretched out. He will also lift up a standard to the distant nation, And will whistle for it from the ends of the earth; And behold, it will come with speed swiftly. No one in it is weary or stumbles, None slumbers or sleeps; Nor is the belt at its waist undone, Nor its sandal strap broken. Its arrows are sharp and all its bows are bent; The hoofs of its horses seem like flint and its chariot wheels like a whirlwind. Its roaring is like a lioness, and it roars like young lions; It growls as it seizes the prey And carries it off with no one to deliver it. And it will growl over it in that day like the roaring of the sea. If one looks to the land, behold, there is darkness and distress; Even the light is darkened by its clouds. (Isaiah 5:25-30)
Had the people who lived in Isaiah's day paid attention to this graphic image of their coming judgment, perhaps they would have repented.  Unfortunately, the prophet's words went unheeded and the children of Israel were taken into exile in three waves by the Babylonians, nearly 200 years after Isaiah's words.

Although people living in Isaiah's time did not heed his words, his true audience was those exiles.  God did not leave them without comfort, despite the fact that the Israelites deserved their punishment.  Later in the book of Isaiah, God speaks through the prophet to give the suffering exiles hope for a better future.

"Comfort, O comfort my people," says your God. "Speak kindly to Jerusalem; and call out to her, that her warfare has ended, that her iniquity has been removed, that she has received of the LORD'S hand double for all her sins." (Isaiah 40:1-2).
The rest of the chapter is devoted to telling the Israelites why they can trust God's words of comfort.  First, Isaiah reminds the people that their deliverance was sure because God's word never fails (40:7).  Then he gives a beautiful image of God as a shepherd, gathering his precious sheep close to his breast.  This is probably the most comforting illustration in the whole chapter, in sharp contrast to the suffering the exiles must have been feeling (40:11).

Almost in counterpoint to this gentle image, Isaiah reminds the people that God still has the power and might to save them from the mighty nation who had defeated them.  No matter what the nations believe, Jehovah is in charge (40:12-26).  It's possible that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego read the words "He it is who reduces rulers to nothing, Who makes the judges of the earth meaningless." They may have taken courage from them to stand up to the mighty Nebuchadnezzar and refuse to bow to his image (Isaiah 40:23; Daniel 3).

While God's promise to return the Israelites to their own land was sure, it would not be immediate.  Before they were deported, Jeremiah prophesied that the exile would last a full seventy years (Jeremiah 25:11).  To give a good idea how long that is, seventy years ago Bing Crosby's "Swinging on a Star"  was a major hit, and the US was embroiled in WWII.  Many of the Jews who were exiled would not live to see the fulfillment of God's promise.  Maybe that is why Isaiah finished out this message of comfort with a reminder that the people would have to wait to see it come to pass. 

Yet those who wait for the LORD Will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary. (Isaiah 40:31).
We like to focus on soaring like eagles, but the waiting was just as important a message to the Israelite people.  God fulfills his promises in his own time, but the people could take comfort during the wait, knowing that God is faithful.

As I've read Isaiah 40 over the past few days, I've imagined the heartbroken exiles doing the same.  Reading it or hearing it over and over, taking comfort from the fact that even though they had sinned and were being punished, the God they had forsaken was merciful and would lead them back to their homes.  It would take time, but Jehovah's words always came true, and He loved his people as tenderly as a shepherd.  When I look at the world around me, I want to offer the same comfort to hurting people mired in their sins.  Next week, we'll take a look at mirroring our God of comfort.


Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(R), Copyright(c) 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

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