Why do you say, O Jacob, and complain, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD; my cause is disregarded by my God”? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. Isaiah 40.27-31.
God’s people are in exile in Babylon. No longer are they even a nation. They are despondent, powerless, brought low … and their complaint is that God has forgotten them or washed his hands of them. Were it otherwise he would surely be doing something to get them out of the hole they find themselves in.
Isaiah’s response is to remind Israel that their God is “the everlasting God” … in Hebrew elohim olam, “God of an age”. He views things through a wide-angled lens; he takes a long view. He is the “Creator of the ends of the earth”. His purposes encompass more than just a little strip of land at the eastern end of the Mediterranean; they encompass Babylon and beyond. God’s plans and strategies are not bounded by the present moment or the present place or the present situation. They are long-term and world-wide and beyond our comprehension, but, as the centuries come and go, he is unflagging and unfaltering in his carrying his purposes through. That is good news and Israel must learn to grasp it. So must I.
And there is more good news. It is that Israel, not in spite of, but precisely because of, her weariness and weakness, is now in a position to receive God’s power and God’s strength. It is the principle of God’s dealings with man that Paul was expressing much later when he said, “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12.10). As long as I think I can do something out of my own resources and in my own strength, I shut myself off from the resources and power of God; but once I realise I have nothing to bring to the task and no strength of my own to carry it through, God’s power kicks in.
And so we come to this well-known and well-loved last verse of this morning’s reading. The picture is one of a great forward movement of people towards some goal. At the back are the old and infirm and they don’t keep going long. Soon the way is strewn with bodies in various stages of exhaustion and collapse; and the only ones left are the young and agile out at the front. But, look, even they cannot keep going. They are now down and out like everyone else. Well not quite everyone. There is still one group that is pressing forward. It is a group of all ages and its vigour seems to be increasing rather than diminishing. It is a group made up of “those who hope in the Lord” or, as the KJV puts it, “they that wait upon the Lord”.
So which is it? “Wait upon” or “hope in”? It is both. The Hebrew is qavah and it means “waiting hopefully” or “hopefully waiting”. It is an attitude rooted in the long-view and the wide-purposes of God that Isaiah has talked about in the earlier verses of this reading. It is an attitude of quiet, patient confidence that is prepared for lift-off at God’s time and in God’s way. Like a soaring eagle, such people will be borne aloft into God’s perfect will not by their own wings but by the currents of God’s Spirit as he lifts their outstretched pinions.
One final thought. The sequence of first “running” and then “walking” at the end of the reading seems to be the wrong way round. It seems to be indicative of a loss of strength rather than a renewal of strength. But the more I think about it, the more I see it is not so. It takes more strength to walk a hundred miles than it does to run a hundred yards; but I don’t need to choose — God will supply me with strength for the sprint and strength for the walk as I wait hopefully on him.