Isaiah chapter 40 is a word of great comfort and blessing. In the midst of all the uncertainty of life, in the face of the turmoil of sin and the looming judgment of God, this text is strikingly different. Instead of a dire warning to be ready for the Day of the Lord, instead of a call to repentance, here we have a promise of hope and assurance. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned” (Isaiah 40:1-2). Tender words of forgiveness and life pour from the mouth of the prophet, and I do not know about you, but I am happy to hear them. Our lives seem too filled with bad news and doom-and-gloom prophecies. This is a welcome change of pace.
There is a lot of wonderful stuff packed in these verses. It is in this text where we get the prophecy of the arrival of John the Baptist, the great forerunner of our Lord Jesus Christ. “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3). That voice is later revealed to be John the Baptist; the guy dressed in a camel’s hair garment, eating locust and wild honey out in the wilderness beyond the Jordan River. What we learn from John is that his work of performing a baptism of repentance was how the way of the Lord was made straight. I love how most of the famous paintings of John the Baptist, whether it is him doing his work out at the Jordan or it is a painting of him as a toddler looking at the child in Mary’s arms, he is often pictured pointing to Jesus. Here He is. Here is the guy we have been waiting for. Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
What is great about all this is it speaks of purpose and direction for the work of God. A prophecy full of comfort and tender words spoken 2500 years before John the Baptist arrives on the scene and John arrives pointing forward to the One who is greater than him, that comes after him. It is a grand story, where the promise of comfort takes on the form of a Savior who bears the sins of the world on the cross. He dies and rises to give life to all who believe in Him. It is a delight to our ears because it is a story that catches us up in it. We are carried along in this promise and hope and gift of God.
Now, the foundation upon which all of this is built, the premise that drives the comfort, assurance, and confidence of this message comes immediately after the prophecy concerning John the Baptist. “All flesh is grass,” he says, “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” (Isaiah 40:6-8). The Word of the Lord stands forever. That is the truth that makes the promise so powerful. All the trappings of our world, all the schemes and devices of mankind, all our inventions and great accomplishment, all of it will fade with time. All of it will be undone. But the Word of the Lord will not fade, it will not wither, it will stand forever. Which means what the Word gives, what it promises, what it holds forth for you will remain. Now that is incredibly good news we can rally around.
In fact, it was this very foundation that guided the work of the Reformation. When Luther made his bold stand in defiance of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, he said, “My conscience is held captive by the Word of God. And to act against conscience is neither right nor safe.” He was bound to the Word, not the counsel of the church, not the decrees of the popes or other church leaders, but to the Word. The Word would not fail. The Word would not fade or wither away. “Here I stand,” Luther said, “I can do no other.” If you did not stand upon the Word, where could you stand? If you did not make your case here, where would you make it? I suppose you could make your case on your experience or your feelings or your own intellectual conclusions, but all of those will be filled with doubt. And when we are talking about eternal life, about the hope of something beyond this age, the last thing we want to entertain is more doubt. There is nowhere else to go, nowhere else to turn. Only the Word of the Lord stands forever.
That phrase became a famous one during the Reformation era. In Latin, it is “Verbum Domini Manet in Aeternum” and the reason why it is important to know it in Latin or at least be exposed to it is when you shorten it to just the first letter of each word it is VDMA. Those letters were often pictured on a Greek cross. Fredrick the Wise of Saxony, Luther’s prince, had the symbol sewn onto the right sleeve of his official clothing and was worn by all the members of his court. It eventually became the official symbol of the Smalcald League, a defensive alliance of Lutheran cities and territories that would eventually go to war against the Holy Roman Emperor. They used this symbol on flags, banners, swords, helmets, uniforms, and even cannons. Imagine going into battle and there inscribed on your sword and emblazoned on your shield was this symbol: The Word of the Lord Stands Forever. Why would you fight? Why would you risk it all? Because you stood upon the truth, upon the Word of the Lord and nothing else.
This old phrase, this motto of the Reformation and promise of the ancient prophet Isaiah is as crucial for us today as it has ever been. We live in a time of increasing confusion and distrust of the words of men. Which talking head on the TV do we listen to? Which do we turn out? Which do we follow? Do we trust any of them? Perhaps we have confidence in some of them some of the time and others at other times? But we rarely, if ever, trust them all the time. We have grown to distrust words, to expect them to be misleading or self-serving for the one who speaks it.
But the Word of the Lord, that is something else altogether. This Word is not just a random stating of a truth or a self-glorifying acclimation about God. This Word has something to give, something it seeks to do, something it is focused on. It might sound like a call for comfort and a tenderness spoken to Jerusalem in a time of great turmoil. It might sound like a voice crying out in the wilderness calling for repentance. It might sound like one saying, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” or, “In the name of Christ, I forgive you all of your sins.” This Word of the Lord is not just some unattached thing, it speaks promises to you. It forgives you. It restores you to the gifts of paradise itself.
Isaiah says the Lord God, “…will tend His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs in His arms; He will carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young” (Isaiah 40:11). He does this with His eternal Word, a Word which calls to you today, a Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, a Word that did what was necessary for your salvation. So, find courage my friends and stand bold upon the Word of God. For everything else will fade away, everything else will spoil and rot, but the Word of the Lord stands forever.