Who is with you?
There is plenty of which to be afraid, yet God tells us in this passage to fear not, for better reasons than the world gives: He is with us.
The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction Commentary, Alec Motyer
The Book of Isaiah, chapters 40-66 (NICOT), John N. Oswalt
Isaiah: God Saves Sinners, Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr.
Leading up to last November’s elections you could not watch 10 minutes of television without seeing a political ad. But then, even after it ended, the ads for the 2023 primaries began! No matter when it is, someone is always trying to get your vote, and one of the most common tactics in today’s political advertisements is fear. Advertisers have simply discovered over the years that, on average, fear is a better motivator than just about anything else. Why? There are many reasons I’m sure, but one is that there is so much to fear. Some of us are more inclined to it than others; some are consumed by it. But every Sunday, we probably all come in having been afraid of something in the past week, or at least anxious about it. In the context into which Isaiah was speaking in our passage, the people to whom he was speaking, Israel, had reason to be afraid. They had been conquered by a foreign power. Yet to those people, while still under that foreign power, and to us today, who still have so much to fear, God says Fear not, for the LORD is with you. Our passage is broken up into three sections: verses 1-7, verses 8-16, and verses 17-20. In each section there’s both a question and a result that we’ll note, and from each section we can see something about the LORD who is with us, that means we need not be afraid. They are: He is the one who rules over rulers, He is the one who helps you, and He is the one who satisfies the thirsty.
He is the one who rules over rulers
Our text begins with a call to the coastlands. The “islands” is another way of translating that, and the idea is that God is calling out to the uttermost lands, and encompassing all in between. He’s calling not only Israel, to whom he spoke in chapter 40, but all the peoples, in this case, to a trial of sorts. As verse 1 ends he says: Let us draw near for judgment. The question to be considered in the trial is stated at the beginning of verse 2: Who stirred up one from the east whom victory meets at every step? Here Isaiah is given a prophetic vision of one from the east, who conquers all that is in his path, and the picture the verses that follow paint is of him doing so with relative ease. The question restated in verse 4, then, is this: Who has performed and done this? Imagine if one ruler today were to start taking down nation after nation with relative ease. Wouldn’t the news networks be filled with people asking, “How is this happening?” So God invites the nations to come consider that question with him, only the question here is not “how?” but “who?”.
Is it by his own might that this one from the east can enjoy such decisive victory? No. Verse 4 pushes us back before him, and asks not only who has performed and done this, but who has called all generations from the beginning? In other words, who’s ruling over all the rulers, over all the generations? The question now clearly stated, the LORD gives his answer at the end of verse 4: “I, the LORD, the first, and with the last; I am he.” When you see the words “the LORD” capitalized in your English Bibles, that’s indicating that the word translated there is the unique name of the God of Israel, Yahweh. The word translated “god” could be used to refer to the gods of Babylon also, and even sometimes is used to refer to angels and kings. But the name Yahweh is only ever applied to the God of Israel. So he’s not the god this one from the east would have worshipped, and was certainly not the god the Babylonians, who had power over Israel during the exile, worshipped. Yet here he says he is the one ruling over this one from the east, who would mow down all his enemies with ease, including Babylon, by the way.
How could he claim that? Well, there’s a reason the name Yahweh is only ever applied to him. The name means “I AM,” so while “god” could be applied somewhat improperly to other beings who were treated as gods, there is only one being who simply exists, by whom everything else was made, and that God, the creator God, is the God who made a covenant with Israel, and took them to be his people from all the peoples of the earth. But that creator God is no mere blind watchmaker, who puts all the pieces of his creation in place as a watchman assembles a watch, and then just sets it into motion, leaving it to govern itself. Here we see that the creator God is the one who calls forth each generation, who is himself the first, the one who simply is, who existed before any of the generations came forth, and the one who will be with the last generation. He predates the generations, and none will outlast him, because he is without beginning or end. Babylon will rise and fall, but he remains. Israel’s situation changed from blessing to curse, freedom to exile, but their God remained the same. So in answer to the question to be considered in court that day, who is the one who stirred up this one from the east, the answer is clear: The LORD says, “I am he.” We learn later that the one from the east is likely Cyrus, the Persian king who would conquer nations with ease, including Babylon, just decades after Babylon seemed so powerful taking Israel into exile. But he is probably not named here because the point is a more general one, encompassing all generations: The LORD, the God of Israel, your God, is the ruler over all rulers.
Now, what response does that engender? We’ll see in a moment that it means we as God’s people need not be afraid. If our God is ruling over even the most powerful rulers on earth, certainly he’s ruling over the comparatively less influential details of your life. In his book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for your life, when as yet there were none of them (Psalm 139:16), not so much as a sparrow falls to the ground apart from him, and the hairs of your head are all numbered (Matt 10:29-31). You do not live in a world ruled by the whims of the powerful or the uncertainty of chance. You live in a world ruled by your God, who works all things according to the counsel of his will (Eph 1:11). Fear not. But before we get too deep into the response this revelation of God ought to engender in we who are his people, the text shows us in verse 5 the response it engenders in those who are not his people. It prophetically shows us the coastlands, the nations, seeing this one from the east, Cyrus, mowing down his enemies, and what does it do to them? It leaves them trembling with fear.
And isn’t that characteristic of the nations in our day as well? We see threats, and we tremble. When the U.S. government shot a Chinese spy balloon out of the sky a few weeks back, many wondered, “Are we going to end up in a violent conflict with China in the next few years?” Some of you are Chinese or of Chinese descent, with family in China. Others of you are of Taiwanese descent and have family in Taiwan, and the question of a China/Taiwan violent conflict seems even more immanent. In America about half the country is afraid that their children are going to be indoctrinated with Critical Race Theory and the now-dominant views of gender and sexuality. The other half is afraid that racial justice won’t be addressed, abortions won’t be allowed, and not all self-identification will be affirmed. In Philadelphia, many fear gentrification, violent crime, housing insecurity, or inadequate education. There are countless things to see and of which to be afraid.
And what do the nations do with that fear? Instead of turning to the LORD with it, they turn to one another. So verse 6 says everyone helps his neighbor and says to his brother, “Be strong!” Now, you read that verse alone and maybe it sounds like a nice society, a place you might even want to live: “Everyone helps his neighbor!” Sounds great, right? And everyone is kind of encouraging their brother: Be strong! But those who know the strength of the enemy, who have realized they are outmatched, know how cheap such supposed comforts are. Yet this is still how our world today operates, is it not? Millenia later, and really still the best we’ve got against the power of mighty nations, political threats, violence, and so forth is the power of positive thinking. I’ve mentioned the children’s book All About Feelings in a sermon before which simply tells children when they are afraid to tell themselves “It will be ok” and think of something that makes them happy. As adults, we of course have more sophisticated forms of that: We speak words of affirmation to ourselves or others; instead of thinking of something happy, we turn to a show or substance that makes us happy. These things numb and distract us from the fear, but they don’t solve it.
Similarly, we have those who simply say, “Be strong!” Toughen up. Cory Brock and Andrew Kelley, in an article on The Gospel Coalition, point out how Joe Rogan’s show has over 13 million subscribers and billions of views online. They say, “there’s a strong thread that runs through the show about working hard, challenging yourself, never giving up, and grinding until you win.” Or they mention David Goggins, the former Navy SEAL, who says things like, “I don’t stop when I’m tired, I stop when I’m done” or “It’s so easy to be great nowadays, because everyone else is weak.” What’s the message? Be strong! Toughen up!
But where these messages ultimately lead is where verse 7 leads: Idolatry. The nations turn to one another for help, and how do they help each other? They work together to build their idols. The craftsman strengthens the goldsmith, the one who smooths with the hammer him who strikes the anvil. They make an idol and assure one another that it is good. And so today, how does the world help one another? Better TV shows, better substances, better therapy, better dieting, fitness routines, and habits in the vein of Rogan, more inspirational quotes in the vein of Goggins, and so forth. Many of these things are not bad in themselves, just like hammers and anvils weren’t bad in themselves in Isaiah’s day, but when they are the things we turn to with our fears, we may escape our fears for a time, we may numb our fears, but we’ll never be free from our fears. Yet God’s people can fear not, because instead of simply turning to one another for help, or turning to idols for help, the one who helps them is the LORD himself, the I AM, the ruler over all rulers.
He is the one who helps you
Again, maybe you hear verse 6 and think, “That sounds like a nice neighborhood. I want to live somewhere where everyone helps his neighbor.” But there is better help promised to God’s people. Look at verse 8. But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, who I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off.” While the nations turn to idols, and though Israel herself was in exile in part because she too had turned to idols, the LORD, the ruler over all the rulers, is still their God, because they are the offspring of Abraham, God’s friend.
And so, he can say to them in verse 10: Fear not, for I am with you. Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. The command is to fear not. They had reason to be afraid. If Cyrus was powerful enough to conquer Babylon, he was certainly powerful enough to conquer them. Yet God tells them to fear not, but it’s not the simple “be strong” of verse 6, and it’s not the simple “it’ll be ok” of our world. He gives real, substantial reasons that they not only ought not to be afraid, but that they need not be afraid, and the repeated word to notice in the reasons that follow is the first-person singular pronoun: I. Remember in the courtroom scene of the first 7 verses, God’s answer to the question of who rules over the rulers is, “I, the LORD; I am he.” Now that same I, the great I AM Himself, says to His people: I am with you. I am your God. I will strengthen you. I will help you. I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
Having anyone with you is comforting on some level when you are afraid. The nations have each other in verse 6; their neighbors are with them. But do you know what’s better than having your neighbor with you? Having the one who rules over all your neighbors, even the most powerful neighbors, with you. Though you may feel lonely at times, you are never truly alone if the LORD is your God. He is with you. Next he says, “Be not dismayed, I am your God.” The nations have gods that they made as their gods. But do you know what’s better than having idols as your god? When the God who made and rules over everything says to you: I am your God. Then He promises: I will strengthen you. The world says to one another: Be strong! Strengthen yourself, in other words. But do you know what’s better than strengthening yourself? When the God of infinite strength says to you: I will strengthen you. I mentioned how verse 6 sounds like a neighborhood we’d all want to live in; everyone helps his neighbor! But do you know what’s better than living in that kind of neighborhood, where you have the help of your neighbor? When the God who rulers over the rulers says, “I will help you,” as he says next in verse 10. Do you see that if this God is your helper, you could live in any neighborhood, even Babylon, where the neighbors want to oppress you, even Philadelphia, where the neighbors may ignore you, or among an unreached people group, where the neighbors have never heard of your God? And finally, he says, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
Now, what do those promises mean for Israel? Clearly they didn’t mean nothing bad would ever happen to them; they were going into exile. Clearly they didn’t mean everyone would like them. Verse 11 speaks of those who are incensed against them. But it does mean their enemies will not ultimately be victorious over them. It says those incensed against you will be put to shame and confounded. It goes so far as to say that though you will look for them, they’ll be gone. The day was coming when Babylon would be no more, and that’s the ultimate fate of all those who oppose God’s people, and again, what’s the reason, verse 13? For I, the LORD your God, hold your right hand, it is I would say to you, “Fear not, I am the one who helps you.”
He repeats it again in verse 14: Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel. How do you like being called a worm by God? It’s humbling, isn’t it? God doesn’t feed your pride like your neighbor who says, “Be strong! You can do it!” He says, “You’re weak! You can’t do it! You’ve got the strength of a worm.” And man, our world knows nothing of this kind of comfort. Our world knows what it’s like to call someone a worm as a term of derision, as a way of discouraging someone and beating them down. There is plenty of verbal abuse in our world. And our world knows how to say back to that, “How dare you call me a worm? I’m a conqueror, I’m a king, I’m a queen, I’m beautiful just the way I am,” and all other sorts of self-affirmation and neighbor-affirmation. “I’m strong,” in other words, but God says, “No; you’re a worm” not to discourage us and bring us down, but to encourage us and lift us up, because look at how he again follows it up: I am the one who helps you, declares the LORD; your redeemer is not yourself or your neighbor, but the Holy One of Israel.
So if the big question of the first section was, “Who is the one who rules over the rulers?” the big question of this section is, “Who is your helper?” Who helps you, so that you need not be afraid? And as God’s answer to the first question was, “I am he,” so his answer to the second question, who is your helper, is, “I am he.” I am the one who helps you. He takes this worm and in verse 15 makes it triumph in the end over all its enemies, because the LORD, the I am, is the one who helps them.
So far, then, we have two questions and two answers: Who is the ruler over the rulers, and who is the one who helps us? In both cases, God’s short answer is, “I am he.” The result of the first answer was that the nations trembled and turned to one another for help. But what’s the result of the second? Look at the end of verse 16. You shall rejoice in the LORD; in the Holy One of Israel you shall glory. God’s people will triumph in the end, but when they triumph, they will not say, “We did it! We’re so proud of ourselves.” They will rejoice in the LORD, because they know they were just a worm, and they only conquered because He strengthened them, He helped them, and He upheld them with his righteous right hand. Isaiah is showing us here the future of all those who belong to God. You may go through exile, and your worst fears may be realized, but you will triumph, and in the end, you will rejoice in the LORD, and in the Holy One of Israel you shall glory. That’s where your future is headed. Have you lost sight of that? When you look ahead, do you only see the worst possible outcomes? Have you begun to think the LORD is not with you, and that you really do need to be afraid? Whatever you are facing now, whatever you anticipate in the future, fear not. The LORD Himself, the great I am, is the one who helps you. He is with you, He is your God, He will strengthen you, He will help you, He will uphold you with his righteous right hand, and when, not if, but when, he leads you in triumph over all your enemies, you will rejoice in Him. And finally, fear not, because He is the one who satisfies the thirsty.
He is the one who satisfies the thirsty
In verse 17 we come to the third question that animates the third section of this passage. This question comes from the poor and needy. They seek water, verse 17 says, but there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst. As an oppressed people, Israel became poor and needy in exile, parched with thirst. Who will satisfy their thirst? And once again, the answer comes in verse 17: I the LORD will answer them; I the God of Israel will not forsake them. In verse 10 he said, “I am with you,” but here he adds, “I will not forsake you.” Again, he’s not promising you’ll never be poor, needy, and thirsty, but he is promising that even when you are poor, needy, and thirsty, he will not forsake you, and he will satisfy your thirst.
Once again, the help God provides goes beyond what your neighbor can provide. If you are thirsty, and your neighbor has water, your neighbor can give you water. But only the God who made and rules over everything can give water where there is none. He opens rivers on bare heights, and fountains in the midst of valleys. He makes the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water. He puts trees in the wilderness. The idea here is that the God who created in the beginning, who rules over all rulers, will also create a new creation, one in which the thirsty are truly satisfied. And the end of that new creation will be, similar to the result of God’s help in the prior section which led to rejoicing, that those who are thirsty will then see and know, consider and understand together. The nations came together in the first section to form idols, but here the thirsty come together and understand that the LORD himself has done this new creation, and so he gets the glory he rightly deserves.
So then, when did God do this? Over 2500 years after this was written, can we see today that God has kept this promise? If not, then maybe we should still be afraid. What good is it to know the LORD is with you, that He is the one who helps you, if he has not, in fact, helped his people, or kept his promise? But he has kept his promise. It was true that only decades after Israel went into exile, God brought a man from the east, Cyrus, and gave him victory over the nations, including Babylon. And Israel did not need to fear Cyrus, because God used Cyrus to send Israel back to the land out of which they had been exiled. Only when they went back, they did not find rivers on the bare heights, or pools of water in the wilderness, and they ended up once again under a foreign power, this time the Roman Empire, and once again, they were poor, needy, and thirsty.
But when Jesus Christ came to those people, he said, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37-38). The question of our third section was, “Who will satisfy their thirst?” and God said, “I the LORD will answer them.” Do you see what Jesus is saying in John 7, then, when he says, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink”? He’s saying, “I am the LORD, here to answer them that are thirsty.” In John 8:58 he got even clearer when he said, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” Not before Abraham was, I was, but before Abraham was, I AM. What’s Jesus saying? He’s saying what God says over and over again in this text: I am he. I am the I AM, Yahweh. I am the ruler over all rulers, I am with you, I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand, and he was so committed to doing that, that he, the one infinite in power, became a worm.
Not only did he become a worm by becoming man, but he humbled himself even further to death on a cross. With that in view, he said, “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people” (Psalm 22:6). He did it to give us the help we really needed, and to accomplish for us what we could never accomplish for ourselves: our salvation. On the cross Jesus made a full atonement for our sins, and then by the power of God, he rose from the grave, triumphant over sin, Satan, and death, so that now, though we deserve to be cut off, whoever believes in him will never be forsaken. He is the ultimate offspring of Abraham, and all who are in him are now called the servants of God, those whom God has chosen, the offspring of Abraham, God’s friend. To you who are poor and needy today, to you who recognize that you are only a worm in yourself, and nothing good dwells in your flesh, to you who thirst, who know the world and all it offers can’t satisfy, to you who are afraid: Come to Jesus and drink. Whoever believes in him, out of his heart will flower rivers of living water. Whoever believes in him need never fear again. Though you are a sinner, you need not fear condemnation: Christ has already paid the penalty for all your sins, and now nothing can separate you from the love of God in him. Though forces are arrayed against you, God rules over all those forces, and now assures you in Christ that they will all work together for your good. And God will create the new creation he describes in verses 18-19 in your heart, by the helper Jesus promised to give after he died and rose again: God the Holy Spirit.
By the Holy Spirit who lives in us, who is himself truly God, one in being with the Father and the Son, God is always with us. And he fills us with the very life of Jesus, the living water that truly satisfies. He comforts us with the assurance that despite our sins, we need not be afraid: we are forgiven, chosen, and loved by God. He gives us a new desire for God, so that we are directed by him away from dependence on ourselves, our neighbors, and our idols for help, and instead look to God alone, and so cry out to him in prayer. He gives gifts to the body of Christ so that we might help one another, not as the world does, by simply telling one another to be strong, but by strengthening one another in the Lord. And he enables us not only to talk to God in prayer, or talk to one another with the gifts he’s given us; he enables us to hear God’s very words. He inspired the words of Scripture, He opens our minds to understand them, and He gives us faith in them, so that we might experience the joy and peace that comes from believing them.
So when you are afraid, don’t turn where the world turns. Don’t rely on yourself, another person, or anything God made. Turn to God himself. Turn to him in prayer. Whatever you are anxious about, set aside time to go into a room, by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in heaven. Cast your anxieties on him. And don’t just pray about things about which you’re anxious; do that, but also take time to praise God, to confess your sins to him, to celebrate the forgiveness you have in Christ, to pray for your church, your city, and for the nations. Listen to the preaching of his word and meditate on it. Tell your church family about the things that are causing fear and anxiety in your life. Let them in. And consider how we encourage one another in this church. When others let you in on hardship in their lives, don’t just try to fix the hardship. Consider the person going through the hardship. Of what are they afraid? That’s even a great question to ask one another: “What’s the scariest part of this situation for you?” and let the encouragement we give one another be more the encouragement of verse 10 than the encouragement of verse 6. May it sound less like, “It’ll all be ok” and “you can do it” and more like, “The LORD is with you. He is your God. He will strengthen you, He will help you, He will uphold you with his righteous right hand.”
Who is the ruler of rulers? The LORD is. Who is the one who helps you? The LORD is. Who is the one who satisfies you when you are thirsty? The LORD is. So fear not, because that LORD, the LORD, the I AM, is with you. Be not dismayed, because that LORD, the LORD, the I AM, is your God. He will strengthen you, He will help you, and He will uphold you with His righteous right hand. Though you are a worm, of no strength in yourself, He will lead you triumphant over sin, Satan, and even death itself, into a new heaven and new earth. In that day you will know it is He who has done it, and you will rejoice in Him.