“Believe me…I swear…You have my word…Pinky promise…Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye!” What are these? Promises. What is a promise? A promise is a means by which we are pledging that our commitments are not limited to the current set of circumstances. We are saying, “At some point in the future, when things change, I will still follow through on what I said.” We make promises because we all know that it is easy to say we will do something during favorable circumstances, but more difficult to do so when those circumstances change.
This is what our wedding vows are. On your wedding day, you are the nicest, prettiest version of yourself possible. But we make vows like, “For better or worse, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, till death do us part…” What are we saying? We are saying that our commitment to this other person will endure through the good times and the bad; our promise will not buckle under hard circumstances.
We all crave this. We long for something that will remain constant and unchanging in the stormy seas of uncertainty in life. When things get hard, who will we look to? Who can we trust? What shining lighthouse can we count on to remain constant and unflickering in the storms of life? My aim today is to blow on the embers of the Bible in your heart till it burns brighter than any other guiding light that seeks to compete with it. My hope is that by the end of the sermon today you will know and feel confident in God’s Word to be your supreme and final authority as your guide in life.
A voice says, “Cry!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
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.
- Isa 40:6-8, pg. 599
The Promise of God
The nation of Israel is trapped in exile in Babylon because they have broken their covenant with Yahweh. They promised that they would abide by the covenant and teach it to their children. However, they have largely failed; the majority of the nation has turned from the One true God and have worshipped false gods and forsaken justice in the land Yahweh had given them. Isaiah 40-66 is God’s message to his broken people carried off into exile, with chapter 40 serving as the introductory message of it all. We saw last week that verses 9-31 are a display of the grandeur of God. Verses 1-5 is the announcement of the end of their punishment and the coming of Yahweh himself to His people. But how do verses 6-8 fit into all of this?
First, we see verse 6 begins with this odd statement, “A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” What does this mean? If we look up at verse 2 Isaiah is told to cry to Jerusalem that her warfare is ended, and in verse 3 a voice is crying to Israel to prepare for the coming of Yahweh. So these previous texts seem to teach us that “crying” is linked with the announcement of something good. So when Isaiah responds with the question, “What shall I cry?” it is almost like he is saying, What other good news could there be? To which God responds: All flesh is grass that withers, but the word of the Lord stands forever.
Why is that good news?
“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,” (40:6b-7). For hundreds of years, Israel has been slowly shrinking, slowly being taken over by other foreign nations. Israel went from being one of the most powerful nations in the Fertile Crescent at the time of David and Solomon, whereas now it was a hollowed out husk of its former self. Solomon’s kingdom stretched over nearly all of the land of Canaan; by the time of the final exile to Babylon, only the city of Jerusalem remained—and it was finally conquered and burned to the ground by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon—this includes the total destruction of the temple of the Lord. Nebuchadnezzar takes those who have survived and deports them back to Babylon and leaves behind the poorest and feeblest. Now, imagine you are an Israelite who has been taken into captivity. You have likely just seen the majority of your countrymen and family perish from starvation and sickness and the temple of your God be utterly destroyed. You now have to walk the grueling 900 mile journey from Jerusalem to Babylon on foot. Finally, you arrive at the massive city of Babylon. What do you see?
If you get some time during lunch today, get on Google and look up Babylon’s “Ishtar Gate.” The entrance into the city was a half-mile long corridor, lined by high walls decorated with golden images of the gods of Babylon. The actual gate at the end of the corridor was over 50 feet high, and painted a deep, navy blue, covered in even larger golden images of the gods of Babylon. There is actually a reconstruction of these gates found at a museum in Berlin today. Along with Babylon’s hanging gardens, many in the ancient world thought the Ishtar Gate and its walls should be considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The sight would have been awe-inspiring. It would have, perhaps, been tempting to think, Wow, look at how beautiful this is! These people’s gods must be stronger than our God. The most impressive building we had was the temple to our God, and it was destroyed. Maybe their gods are the real gods? Maybe if we worshipped them, we would be strong and impressive and victorious, like they are…
But hopefully, someone would remind you: Remember what Isaiah said, 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. The grandeur and awe of Babylon will not last. Remember what Isaiah says later in the chapter about princes and their kingdoms? “[God] 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,” (40:23-24). In fact, in just a few decades, the empire of Babylon would fall to the Persians. In other words, don’t be too easily impressed by the world’s displays of its beauty and power; the flowers always fade.
This is important for us to remember today. We shouldn’t be too naïve to assume that we too aren’t wooed by impressive architecture, budgets, or degrees. We may not be self-consciously thinking, Their god must be the real one; I should worship that god. But, we do, more or less, the same thing in the quiet of our heart. Look at this person’s wealth, influence, and beauty…maybe if I live like them, I could have that too. Look at their popularity, look at their track-record of success, look at how happy their home life is…they must be right. Someone’s worldview can seem much more persuasive when they have slick marketing, a handsome smile, and expensive suits. But none of it, none of it, will last. All of the beauty, splendor, and accomplishments of mankind will one day begin to droop, wither, and fade.
Percy Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias, illustrates the fleeting splendor of this world. In the poem a traveller comes upon the remains of a statue in a desert. All that remains of the statue is the legs of a giant man, surrounded by the rubble of the collapse of the rest of it, with the head half-buried in the sand. At the bottom a plaque on the statue reads as such:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Friend, are you ever tempted to believe in something or reject something because of its proverbial curb appeal? Deciding what you believe simply because it is trendy, attractive, or appears successful is not a good idea. You notice, Jesus did not come into this world with pomp and circumstance. He was born to a poor couple, in a tumbledown stable on the edge of town. He lived a modest life, working a blue-collar job. He had only three years of ministry where, despite moments of immense popularity, he was often misunderstood by the masses and despised by the elite; those who loved him most were the lame, the vile, and the sinful. He was poor, sometimes homeless, and died a humiliating and excruciating death like a common criminal, abandoned by even his most devoted of friends and followers. What our world estimates to be indicators of importance—status, wealth, beauty, and power—were almost all totally lacking. Yet, this is God’s Messiah, the King of Kings. What am I saying? I am saying that God does not value what the world values. “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God,” (1 Cor 1:26-29).
Friends, will you pray for your pastors that as we lead QBC, that we would be primarily led by God’s Word, and not the passing beauty of this world? That the main question we would be asking would be “What does the Bible say?,” rather than just, “What works?” Will you pray for yourself, your fellow members, and the future members who are not here yet, that you all would seek to have a church that is happily ordered by, submissive to, and constrained by God’s Word. We know that what we win people with, is what we win them to. And if we win people with the beauty, entertainment, and attractions of the world, then when it fades, as it most certainly will, they will to. The trends and fads of this world will change, but God’s Word never will, so we want to let the eternal, unchanging Word of God be what is guiding our church.
If half of the good news is that the beauty and splendor of the kingdoms of men are dust in the wind, then what is the other half? “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever,” (40:8). Why does the text specify the “word of our God”? Why not just “God”? Surely, that would fit into the vein of the rest of the chapter with its focus on the greatness of God. I think there are a couple of reasons:
- You cannot separate God’s Word from God Himself. Words are an interesting thing. They are not “you” but they are, in some sense, an extension of you. If I say, “I’ll be there on Tuesday,” and do not show up, or write slanderous things about you in the local newspaper, I cannot defend myself by saying, “Hey, don’t be angry at me; those were just my words, that wasn’t ” We even give people “our word” as a way of disclosing our character and integrity. God’s Word is a disclosure of God’s thoughts and actions throughout time—so much so that Jesus Himself is described as the Word made flesh. The Bible is not equivalent with God, of course, as if it was the fourth member of the Trinity. No, but it is a revelation of God. So, to say that you love God, but just don’t think the Bible is very important is an oxymoron. It is like a husband saying he loves his wife, but doesn’t like it when she talks with him. But still, why does Isaiah specify the word of God here?
- Our God makes promises. Look at the end of verse 5, “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken,” (40:5). The promise that God’s glory is going to be revealed to all flesh is grounded in this: the mouth of the Lord has spoken. In other words, you can trust that this promise is going to come true because God has said so. You can see how verses 6-8 would naturally flow out of that. Is this word of God reliable? Will it change? Can it be banked on? Again, imagine you are an Israelite who has been sent into exile…Back in Genesis, God had promised Abraham that his descendants would become as numerous as the stars are in the sky, that they would be a blessing to all the nations of the world, that whoever cursed them would be cursed, and that they would have a land of their own. Then, through Moses, God promised Israel that He would be their God, and they would be his special possession, a nation of royal priests, and would give them the land promised to Abraham. Then to David God promised that he would never lack an heir to sit on his throne and that his kingdom would be an everlasting kingdom. These are remarkable promises! So, as you just watched the majority of your people by slaughtered or scattered, the land that was promised to your ancestors has been forcibly taken from you, and the throne of David is now a pile of ashes, what are you thinking? Has the word of God failed? No, because God also promised that if Israel abandoned Yahweh and violated their covenant, they would be exiled from the land.Moses warned Israel of the curses that await them if they violated the covenant back in Deuteronomy. As he does so, he prophetically looks forward to a day when Israel will wander from God and suffer the consequences of exile, “All the nations will say, ‘Why has the Lord done thus to this land? What caused the heat of this great anger?’ Then people will say, ‘It is because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt… and the Lord uprooted them from their land in anger and fury and great wrath, and cast them into another land, as they are this day,’” (Deut 29:24-25, 28). Israel’s loss of the covenant blessings promised to them were not due to God’s Word failing; the exact opposite is true—it is because God’s Word does not change that the consequences of the covenant fell. If a parent tells their child that if they do such and such one more time there will be consequences, and the child does it one more time, the parent needs to follow through with the discipline, or else their word will mean nothing to the child. God followed through on the consequences He promised Israel because He always keeps His Word.
But why is this here in Isaiah? Just a divine “I told you so”? No. If we keep reading just a few verses later in Deuteronomy we find this shocking promise, “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you,” (Deut 30:1-3)
The exiles in Babylon can rest assured because Yahweh has promised that there is still the hope of restoration after exile, and His Word does not change—it endures forever.
Friends, these should sober us and encourage us. It should sober us because it reminds us that because God’s Word never changes, we should not assume that God will not follow through on His warnings to us. Jesus warns us of the danger of not heeding His words, “And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it,” (Matt 7:26-27). Ignore Jesus’ words at your own peril.
It should also encourage us because this means that God’s open invitation of grace will never be yanked out from under us. John writes these wonderful words of assurance, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world,” (1 John 2:1-2). Or listen to this promise, “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus,” (Phil 4:19). That is a staggering promise. Is there ever a circumstance that comes into life that will make that promise not true? Your teenager tells you that want nothing to do with Christianity; your spouse tells you that don’t feel like they are in love with you anymore; the doctor tells you they cannot find out why you are experiencing that pain—is that promise still true? Yes; God’s Word never changes, it has no expiration date. Every need will be supplied. “Everything is needed that He sends, nothing is needed that He withholds,” John Newton.
As you reflect on what you want for the next year, as you consider what difficulties lay ahead of you, why not choose to build your life on the rock that does not shift or change? What is currently striving to compete with your affections for primacy in your heart? What alternative guides have functionally become more important than God’s Word to you? What others think of you? Your appetites and desires? Shame from past sin? Take a moment in quiet reflection and ask the Lord to search your heart and reveal to you what is competing with Him and His Word. Friends, be warned—God’s Word does not change and His warnings are not empty threats. And friends, be encouraged—God’s Word does not change and His promise of free grace to all who receive Christ will never fade.