Unending Encouragement

Unending Encouragement

(Isaiah 40:1-2)
by Bob Burridge ©2018

The first days after a crisis often bring people together in a special way. They find a bond that’s deeper than having common interests, hobbies, and occupations. Those effected are stirred to focus on values that bind them together beyond these circumstantial things.

All through history, crises of various kinds have drawn God’s people together. They’ve gathered to grieve over the death of loved ones. They were some times marched away linked by chains into exile. They fell together under harsh persecutions, and prayed for God’s deliverance. Many endured long seasons of fear in captivity, caves, and catacombs.

Personal and family catastrophes, national calamities, and church problems test and prove our true bonds. They can also bring our compassions to the surface. We should stand together, work together, and find a unity which may have otherwise been taken for granted.

There will always be tragedies and challenges that come our way. We need to face them honestly and with a right focus. In God’s plan all that comes to pass has a purpose. It’s not healthy to simply accept bad circumstances. We shouldn’t miss opportunities to grow stronger and to reach out to others who may be struggling together in those hard times.

The long-term perseverance of God’s people shows their rest in their Lord’s promises, and their commitment to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. To avoid discouragement, we need a ready source of encouragement. We need to rely upon God’s sustaining grace. That’s what shows the true character of believers as they are tested.

In Isaiah 40 God called his Prophet
to prepare his people for hard times ahead.

The first two verses summarize an important theme.
1. Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
2. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.

The Book of Isaiah as a whole makes it clear that a judgment was going to come upon the remaining tribes of Israel for their failure to be faithful to God. This warning came about 150 years before that judgment would come. It was presented ahead of time to stir them to prepare for being taken into captivity by a pagan nation for several generations. As this judgment approached and when it would come, Israel was to keep her eyes fixed on God’s promises rather than on the crisis.

In the Book of Isaiah God revealed the details of their future history. After the period of deserved captivity, a pagan King would be raised up who would set them free. The Covenant people would return to their land and rebuild God’s destroyed Temple. A Messiah would come who would suffer for the sins of his people. He would come humbly as a servant and would succeed in fully removing their guilt.

But there would be long trying times ahead.

Isaiah was told to comfort God’s people.
40:1, Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.

The Hebrew verb translated as “comfort” is “nakham” (נחם). It means more than just to console some one. It includes giving positive encouragement. Literally, it means helping them to be able to “breathe strongly”. It’s a plural commanding verb here, which means it wasn’t just a message for Isaiah to deliver alone. It’s a general message for all God’s people to deliver. God said it twice to show how central and important it is for God’s people to comfort one another.

This comfort is part of the continuing covenant promise to God’s undeserving people in all ages. By grace, even when his people rebel as those in Isaiah’s time had, God continues to offer comfort and hope to his needy children.

The message of comfort rests in God’s covenant promises.

God told Isaiah and his other spokesmen to …
40:2, Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.

The Hebrew phrase translated as “tenderly” here (“kindly” or “comfortably” in other English versions) is actually two words, “al laev” (על־לב), which literally means “upon heart”. This comfort was to be spoken to the hearts of the people of Jerusalem. It’s not just to be directed to the circumstances, but to the center of their troubled souls. Though there were long dark days ahead for Jerusalem, God would not abandon his people. Their captivity would come to an end.

God’s people owed a moral debt as a nation that had rebelled against God. The troubles the Tribe of Judah were going to face would come because of her unadmitted and unrepented for sins. Not all God’s people who lived there had rebelled. But as a nation, she had disobeyed God’s covenant. Her Kings and Priests were often corrupt and misled those they were commissioned to guide.

Her earthly disobedience as a nation was going to be judged by earthly punishments to the nation. Their freedoms will be lost for a time, and they will become captives of their enemies. Her beautiful temple in Jerusalem would be totally destroyed. There would be no place for united worship on the Sabbaths that followed. All corporate worship of the nation would end for many generations.

She will have received “double” for all her sins. The idea of “doubling” in the Hebrew culture should not be taken literally as a mathematical doubling. The meaning has to do with the intensity of something. It’s that the full debt will be paid to the full extent of it. The captivity would not be an easy time. There was a lesson to be learned, and God’s justice needed to be displayed by punishing crimes as warned in the Covenant that made them a nation known as God’s people.

Sometimes our suffering is an obvious consequence of our own sins. Sometimes it’s because of the sins of those around us. But when deserved judgments fall there is still good reason to find comfort in the Lord. God will not disown, abandon, or forget his true people. He has made a gracious covenant that cannot fail or be set aside by rebellion. While eternal damnation is deserved, grace prevails because the redeemed within the visible nation are clothed with the righteousness of the promised Messiah, the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ. He was the focus of the promises which he fulfilled in our place on that cross on Calvary. Throughout the earthly captivity that was to come,where they would lose so many material things, their freedoms and their Temple, God would be there with them to comfort them and to point ahead to their deliverance.

The debt for disobeying God is infinite. No human suffering could pay it off. By God’s promise, that infinite debt will be paid in full for those he determined to redeem (1 Peter 1:1-2), not by the suffering of the sinner. In the sinner’s place the debt will be paid by the suffering of the Messiah, the infinite, perfectly holy, and all powerful God in human flesh. That promise has been the foundation of God’s covenant from the beginning. It’s one of the great comforts revealed in this section of the Book of Isaiah.
Isaiah 53:4-6, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned–every one–to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

When all the afflictions and warfare of Judah are completed, there will be a time of restoration because of the then still future work of the Savior. This firm assurance came directly to the Prophet from God who cannot fail. Because of the Messiah’s suffering, and because they would pay their earthly sentence, God would again one day bless them fully. This was the larger picture they needed to remember.

Just as their punishment would be full, “double” to use the Hebrew way of saying it, so also their blessing will be in full, “double”, as the Hebrew expression would say. Later in Isaiah 61:7 the prophet wrote, “Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion; instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot; therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion; they shall have everlasting joy.”

The principle God teaches here
applies to all our sufferings and losses.

Our trials are most often not the direct results of our own sins. We live in a world agonizing with the natural effects of the presence of sin. Disasters, disease, and death are part of the general effects of Adam’s fall. Sometimes our agony is because of a painful illness, a destroyed home, or a lost job. One of the heaviest griefs is when we see those we love in pain either in body or in soul. But, even while we grieve and struggle to overcome the situation, there is a double portion of comfort for God’s people.

This comfort is far better appreciated by us today than what Isaiah understood. We live in an era that looks back on the completed promise which was still future for that Prophet. We know that our Savior Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, who paid the debt of sin. The symbols and rituals of the old sacrifices serve no continuing need to be practiced today since all they represented has now become our reality.

This means that the comfort we have to bring to one another in challenging times is inexhaustible. It has its anchor in the eternal decrees of God, and as Jeremiah reminds us, there is nothing too hard for the Creator (Jeremiah 32:17). The promise of God to his people is a solemn covenant that can never fail. As Psalm 89:34 assures us, God said, “I will not violate my covenant or alter the word that went forth from my lips.”

There is something that isn’t inexhaustible. Human persistence can collapse through long challenges. There is a very real danger that when problems draw out over weeks, months, or years, the focus of our thoughts adjusts to the situation and turns away from issues that need to be corrected.

When Israel and Judah lingered in captivity for so long, some forgot their covenant duties. They forgot the cities of their fathers and the Temple that had been left in ruins. They neglected the customs that God gave them and in their place adopted those of their pagan surroundings.

But some, the faithful remnant among God’s people, remembered these words of Isaiah. They knew that God’s comfort was to the faithful and would never fail. They rested in a firm foundation through the captivity and raised children of faith. It was that line who came back to the land, rebuilt the Temple, and waited for the Messiah. They were the ones who found true blessing in their labors and found joy in their lives.

We need to remember not only to be steadfast in our own struggles, but to be a ceaseless encouragement to those around us who suffer. We can never run short of the comfort we have to offer to one another. We draw from the inexhaustible fountain that never runs stale or dry. In 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 the Apostle Paul wrote, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.”

We hear educators and psychologists talk a lot about our struggles with attention deficit disorders. There’s a constant flood of theories and suggested remedies for our wandering minds. While that’s another topic for another time, one thing is clear, it’s not a new idea. The Bible, written thousands of years ago, deals with the problem, its cause, and treatment.

Wandering minds can be a problem in school studies or in church during sermons. But it’s tragic when our minds wander away from our duty of comforting the needy. There can be a “weariness” in doing good things. Galatians 6:9 says, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”

As those in need move through long times of challenge
we need to attentively persist in our duties toward them.

After trying times there are often difficult adjustments that have to be made. As things move toward an often slow resolution there may be a sense of temporariness, a reduction in the activities they were used to, choices that have to be made quickly, delays, demands on time, and sometimes financial challenges. This can be a wonderful opportunity for us to be an instrument of God’s comfort and help them through those hard times. We need to keep our focus on our task. God has graciously called us by his Covenant of Grace to grow as a spiritual family.

What was good for Isaiah, is good for all of us all the time. We are to be comforted by God’s promises, and we are to be a comfort to one another. Our duty is to persist in this important duty regardless of circumstances or their duration.

This lesson applies far beyond the immediate situation.

Think for just a moment about those who have gone through some crisis in the past. Have you kept up with them? Or have you let it fade from your mind during their recovery phase? In those first moments of a loss or tragedy the calls and cards may come in floods of comfort. But often, when the immediate visible crisis fades, contacts from our comforters drop off. The needy are forgotten as they rebuild. But it’s in the rebuilding time that many challenges come along and encouragement is needed.

It’s then that the needy should know that others are still praying for them. It’s important that they have regular contact with friends who are ready to give of their time and show interest. They need to know they are cared for and loved. It will be encouraging for them to see the evidence of God’s promises at work in those around them, and that their friends understand what they faced and are concerned that they are handling things well and resting in God’s promises.

After that first important Hallmark moment, we need to be careful that we don’t ignore the recovery phase. We ought to show our continuing support in prayer, help, and personal encouragement in the days, weeks, and months that follow. Those long times of recovery can give us opportunities to strengthen our bond with one another in God’s family, and to grow together spiritually.

Don’t become weary in the good you do. Make an effort to remember those you know who have suffered and who, though the crisis is past, may still be struggling with inner losses, hard times of rebuilding their lives, and making adjustments to very different circumstances than they were accustomed to. Comfort God’s people. Speak to their hearts the promises and hope that are ours in Christ, and be there as a brother or sister in the family of God.

(Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)

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