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About the Author
CHARLES DYER (B.A., Washington Bible College; Th.M. and Ph.D., Dallas Theological Seminary) served for ten years as provost of Moody Bible Institute before becoming professor-at-large of Bible and host of The Land and the Book radio program. He is the author of numerous books, including A Voice in the Wilderness, What's Next?, The Rise of Babylon, and The New Christian Traveler's Guide to the Holy Land. His most recent book is Character Counts: The Power of Personal Integrity.
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A Voice in the Wilderness
God's Presence in Your Desert Places
By Charles H. Dyer
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2004 Charles H. Dyer
All rights reserved.
Comfort amid the Sand, Sweat, and Blood of Our Lives
I sat near the back of the church, waiting for the wake to begin. I was there to honor a friend whose wife had suddenly and unexpectedly died. But what could I say—or do—to comfort a grieving husband?
The answer came when the pastor asked the congregation to rise as he led the family up the aisle ... quoting Scripture after Scripture that focused on God's sustaining comfort.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death ... thou art with me."
"In my Father's house are many mansions.... I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also."
"I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth."
The Bible offers eternal answers to life's troubling questions. But are those answers relevant to us today? The images in the Bible make clear this is not a sterile Book immaculately conceived in some sort of mystical, holy vacuum. Though God is the ultimate Author, He used human writers as His instruments. And both they and the Lord speak through varied images of the day: the caring shepherd (Psalm 23; John 10:1–15), a shield and horn (Psalm 18:2; 112:9), and a mother hen (Matthew 23:37), to name a few.
To interpret His Word properly we must enter their world. The bleating of sheep on barren hills, the mournful wail of a ram's-horn trumpet on the temple steps, or the harsh clang of sword hitting sword in epic battle hang like tapestries in the background of nearly every page.
To understand Israel's struggle in the wilderness, we must smell the dust kicked up by the murmuring multitude's sandals and feel the sweat falling from their sun-scorched foreheads as they desperately search for water in a parched desert. Or to understand the fear of Jesus' disciples, we must hear the waves crashing over the bow of the boat and feel the sting of the wind-whipped spray on their faces as they strain against the oars, struggling to survive a late-night storm on the Sea of Galilee.
The harsh conditions of that time may seem remote—few of us ply the lake or ocean for a living; even fewer live in the desert. Yet at times we face hardships just as fierce and challenging as people living in the days of Moses, Isaiah, or Jesus. And the Scriptures of that day speak to our hardships as loudly as they did to Israel's challenges more than two millennia ago. So to understand our day, and Isaiah's writing, let's first review the historical background, which provides texture, color, and depth to the biblical account. The words will take on greater force and impact when we see with increased clarity their connection to the real world in which we live.
Assyria's Invasion of Judah
The background to Isaiah 40 includes the sounds of several thousand snorting horses pushing wildly against their yokes, their hooves pounding into the dry Judean ground, nostrils flaring, ears attuned to the crack of the chariot drivers' whips. As these panting steeds race by, their sound subsides, only to be replaced by the deep, rhythmic thump of 200,000 soldiers' leather sandals marching along the hard-packed road.
The smoke of burning cities and towns mixes with the dust kicked up by the thousands of refugees fleeing from the invading Assyrian army, seeking safety and security in Jerusalem. The scene is one of confusion, fear, and, at times, even panic.
Inside Jerusalem, the streets are filling with refugees from every corner of the land. Crying babies reach out to mothers who are so distracted by dark thoughts of impending destruction that they scarcely notice. Food and water are already in short supply, and the situation deteriorates daily as frightened civilians continue to pour through the city's gates. Rumors spread as the people quiz each new arrival. Where have they come from? What have they seen? What have they heard from others?
Tension mounts as each new report brings the Assyrian army ever closer. The rising plume of dust from the village of Nob, on the northern edge of the Mount of Olives, confirms their worst fears. The Assyrians have reached the outskirts of Jerusalem! Then a shout is heard from the watchman on the city's southern wall. A column of Assyrian soldiers is also making its way up the road from Bethlehem! The city is surrounded; all avenues of escape have been cut off. Acting on instinct, a large crowd rushes toward the temple to cry out to God for deliverance.
Words of Deliverance
Pushing his way through the people, the prophet Isaiah forces his way to the front of the panic-stricken crowd. The people grow quiet as Isaiah begins to speak. Boldly he announces God's protection and deliverance for those hiding behind Jerusalem's walls: The Assyrian king "will not enter this city or shoot an arrow here. He will not come before it with shield or build a siege ramp against it" (Isaiah 37:33). The words sound almost too good to be true, but the prophet assures the people that God's deliverance will come soon.
Isaiah's words barely have enough time to reach the ears of everyone in Jerusalem before God brings them to pass. In a single night God strikes down 185,000 Assyrian solders. "So Sennacherib king of Assyria broke camp and withdrew" (verses 36–37).
Jerusalem was spared! God answered prayer! King Hezekiah and the people of Jerusalem experienced a genuine miracle. They had the biblical equivalent of a mountaintop experience. Unfortunately, when you walk off a mountain-top, you are usually heading toward a valley.
Babylon's Destruction of Jerusalem
Some time after the Assyrian army retreated from Jerusalem, an envoy arrived from the king of Babylon bringing gifts for Hezekiah. Word of Hezekiah's miraculous recovery from physical illness—and, no doubt, his victory over the Assyrians—had reached Babylon's king, who was also struggling against the Assyrians. Perhaps Hezekiah would share the secret of his great victory. But instead of pointing the visitors toward the great God of Israel, King Hezekiah basked in their praise and "showed them what was in his storehouses—the silver, the gold, the spices, the fine oil, his entire armory and everything found among his treasures. There was nothing in his palace or in all his kingdom that Hezekiah did not show them" (39:2). Hezekiah foolishly took credit for a victory he had not won.
Hezekiah had feared the Assyrians, but it was the Babylonians who would become Judah's ultimate enemy. God sent Isaiah to announce the grim news. "The time will surely come when everything in your palace, and all that your fathers have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left" (verse 6). The predicted invasion didn't take place for another century, but it did come. Long after Isaiah had died, God sent King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon against Jerusalem to fulfill this prophecy.
In 586 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar's army entered Jerusalem. The soldiers sacked and burned God's temple that had been built by Solomon. They captured Judah's king as he tried to escape. Blinded and bound in chains, he was carried into captivity in Babylon where he eventually died. Most of the other inhabitants of Jerusalem who survived the brutal siege were also carried off into captivity.
Defeated. Disheartened. Depressed. Distressed in spirit. Deported from their homeland to a foreign country. These were the people who had looked for the light at the end of a dark tunnel—only to discover that it was the lamp of the onrushing train of God's judgment bearing down on them. And the impact was horrific.
God's Program of Comfort
God's judgment through the Babylonian army may have taken the people of Judah by surprise in 586 B.C., but the prophet Isaiah had clearly seen it coming. He not only announced the event long before it took place, he also wrote a message of comfort and hope to those who would endure this time of national tragedy. Isaiah 39 predicted Jerusalem's fall; Isaiah 40 offers comfort to those affected by that fall.
Indeed, more than a century before the event even happened, God boldly announced His plan to provide comfort for those who would experience the approaching pain and sorrow. "Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem" (40:1–2a). The remainder of Isaiah 40 contains God's prescription for healing Jerusalem's pain and discouragement—for providing comfort in times of sorrow.
But what does the message of Isaiah 40 have to do with you? Can words that were written 2,700 years ago make a difference in your life today? They can, even though your circumstances will not match those of ancient Israel. The people of Israel experienced the loss of national identity and personal liberty. They saw their God-ordained religious and civil institutions crumble. They watched helplessly as loved ones died of starvation and disease. They saw friends and family members raped, tortured, and murdered by brutal soldiers. They felt their throats tighten from thirst as they endured a forced march into a strange land where they became slaves.
Our individual circumstances are not the same, but we have all experienced personal heartache and trauma. Perhaps you are struggling with the loss of a loved one—the sorrow and intense loneliness pulling you down into a black pit of despair. Or perhaps you have been seared by the hot iron of rejection—the hurt and anger burning your soul, leaving a wound that refuses to heal. Maybe you are facing physical or emotional pain that has turned your life upside down and left you feeling violated, vulnerable, and valueless.
It is even possible that you do not even know exactly why you feel so lonely and discouraged. Others might think you are happy and content, but your smile is nothing more than a mask that hides your deep personal sadness.
The causes for sorrow and discouragement vary, but the results are the same.
Are you discouraged? If you are, then walk with me through the majestic landscape of Isaiah 40 to discover God's sustaining comfort.
As you do, along the way through the desert experiences, you will encounter oases that refresh, even as the nine men and women who have written their "Postcards from the Wilderness." The first postcard comes from a seasoned Pennsylvania pastor, who found comfort during his own "dark hour."CHAPTER 2
The Comfort of God's Presence
One of the special joys of Christmas is the sound of holiday music. Certain songs stir up memories and emotions that carry us back to our childhood. Songs like "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" may evoke memories of laughter at long-forgotten family gatherings, sledding with friends through newly fallen snow, or the delicious smell of hot chocolate simmering on the stove.
But some of our most memorable songs are Christmas carols—melodies whose words are rooted in the Bible and Christian tradition that focus on the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. The strains of "Silent Night," "Joy to the World," and "O Come, All Ye Faithful" help us push aside the crass commercialization of Christmas. They remind us anew that the true purpose for the holiday is to remember the first coming of God's Son ... even as we look forward to His return.
In many communities the Christmas season is also the time to attend a performance of Handel's Messiah, one of the grandest examples of Scripture set to music. Following the overture, the words of Isaiah 40:1–4 reach out to pull the audience into the scriptural procession that winds its way from the Cross to the Crown.
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem,
And cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished,
that her iniquity is pardoned.
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness,
Prepare ye the way of the Lord,
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain
and hill made low;
The crooked straight, and the rough places plain.
The Wilderness of Judah
Isaiah's words of comfort and hope, penned seven centuries before the birth of Israel's Messiah, found their fulfillment in the ministry of John the Baptist in the wilderness of Judah. In his powerful prophetic voice, John announced to the people of Jerusalem, "I am the voice of one calling in the desert, 'Make straight the way for the Lord'" (John 1:23). He was, ultimately, the messenger sent by God to prepare Judah for the arrival of her Messiah.
But move back in history to a time hundreds of years before the beginning of John the Baptist's ministry or the birth of Jesus. Entering a small home, your eyes strain to adjust to the dark interior. Eventually you can see well enough to make out a group of Jewish refugees seated around a small wooden table. Spread out across the table is an old scroll. Peering at the scroll through the dim light of the flickering oil lamp, these captives in Babylon read with amazement the words of the prophet Isaiah. The scroll is over a century old, yet the words are so relevant it's as if they had been penned only yesterday.
As the captives read the scroll, they think about all the pain and heartache they have experienced. Their ancestral homes are now nothing more than piles of broken stones, covered with thistles and thorns, inhabited only by lizards and rock badgers. Family tombs that once held the remains of loved ones now lie open and neglected. Solomon's temple, the holy site where they went to worship God, is now a blackened shell, the heat from the burning cedarwood crumbling the limestone blocks into lime. They frown as they think about the temple's shattered stones standing in silent witness to God's judgment of their nation's idolatry.
As they read Isaiah's prediction of Judah's captivity in Babylon, they understand all too well what the prophet was announcing. Their past glory is only a memory, their present life is nothing more than endless days of hard service in a strange land, and their future is shrouded in uncertainty. Or so it seems.
Comfort Within the Wilderness
Then they come to words almost too wonderful to read ... words of comfort to those living in great discouragement. But how was such comfort possible? What could possibly happen that could turn their cries of pain into shouts of joy?
The arrival of God's comfort would be announced by His messenger in the wilderness. The wilderness! As the exiles read these words of promise, they understand immediately the picture being painted by Isaiah. The wilderness being described is the wilderness of Judah just to the east of Jerusalem. Starting on the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives, it twists its way down into the Jordan Valley, running along the entire length of the Dead Sea.
The Rugged Judean Wilderness
This is not a wilderness of sand, like the Sahara Desert. Nor is it a flat, empty expanse that stretches off into the horizon like some other deserts. The Judean wilderness is rough and rugged, a land of deep, twisting gorges carved into chalky limestone. The ground is hard, harsh, and unyielding. Patches of brown and black flint sprinkled across the surface seem to provide the only variations in color.
The Judean wilderness is a stark metaphor of permanence. Its foreboding hills stood guard when Abraham first entered the land. The same hills watched Joshua lead his army on a daring night march from Gilgal to Gibeon. They saw David flee from Jerusalem toward the Jordan River to escape the evil plans of his own son Absalom. And they watched Satan tempt Jesus, as he enticed the Son of God to turn the ever-present stones into loaves of bread. The wilderness never seemed to change.
The captives in Babylon felt that their spiritual condition matched the physical condition of the wilderness. They were spiritually dry, exiled from God's source of blessing, and surrounded by deep chasms of trouble and difficulty that seemed to make any restoration impossible. And their spiritual condition, like the physical condition of the Judean wilderness, appeared to be permanent. Or was it?
God's Messenger of Hope
Isaiah introduced a messenger who would be the harbinger of change. Imagine the scene pictured by the prophet. Off in the distance, beyond a field of rocks that shimmer from the heat radiating off them, a faint sound is heard. Heads cock forward and eyes scan the horizon to find the source for the sound. Soon a tiny speck appears over a distant hill. As the shape draws closer, it takes on a human form. The faint sound becomes a voice, and eventually the words being spoken by this desert traveler become distinct. "In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God" (Isaiah 40:3). Who is this?
Excerpted from A Voice in the Wilderness by Charles H. Dyer. Copyright © 2004 Charles H. Dyer. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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Table of ContentsTABLE OF CONTENTS
1. Comfort amid the Sand, Sweat, and Blood of Our Lives
2. The Comfort of God's Presence (Isaiah 40:3-5)
3. The Comfort of God's Promise (Isaiah 40:6-8)
4. The Comfort of God's Person (Isaiah 40:9-11 )
5. The Comfort of God's Protection (Isaiah 40:12-26)
6.The Comfort of God's Power (Isaiah 40:27-31)