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14 December 2017

“Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength.”

Of course we have some iffy ideas about what “waiting on the Lord” entails.

Isaiah 40.31

Whenever I visit fellow Christians at their homes, a large number of ’em have a painting or sculpture of an eagle somewhere. Often it’s an American bald eagle, meant to express their patriotism. Others were purchased at the local Family Christian Stores before it went bankrupt and shut down. Patriotic or not, if it was produced by Christians, it’s gonna be captioned with the following Isaiah verse:

Isaiah 40.31 KJV
But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.

The sentiment which really appeals to Christians, whether it’s blended with patriotism or not, is the idea the LORD, our creator, has inexhaustible strength, Is 40.28 and empowers the weak. Is 40.29 Even though the strongest of us may fail, Is 40.30 God can indefinitely renew our strength. Is 40.31

Well, if we trust in the LORD. Hopefully we do.

So it’s meant as encouragement for those of us whose batteries run low, thanks to working hard, playing hard, and otherwise doing a crappy job of resting. When we’re exhausted, God can recharge us. When our resources are taxed, God can replenish ’em. Many’s the time I’ve told my students, “I ran out of patience with you a long time ago; I’m tapping God’s patience now.” Tapping God’s dyamis power,” his dynamo of endless cosmic supply, is possible for every Christian.

Right? Well… now we get to the bit where Christians take this verse out of context.

“But this is a prophecy.”

Popular Christian culture, same as popular culture, imagines a prophet to be someone who predicts the future, or declares things which’re guaranteed to happen. Isaiah wrote those who wait on the LORD shall renew their strength, so people figure Isaiah was a prophet, and was declaring a truth. A guarantee. A promise.

Okay. Actual prophecy is when God tells one of his followers something that’s meant to be shared with others. The follower becomes God’s go-between, the person who passes God’s messages along. His agent. His messenger. His prophet. You wanna be one of his prophets? Share what he tells you.

But too many people believe God doesn’t talk like that to anyone anymore, and don’t even listen. Hence they have a lot of other inaccurate ideas about prayer, prophecy, revelation… and God, grace, how to interpret the scriptures, how God’s kingdom works, what God prioritizes, and so forth.

Lemme reiterate: Prophecy is anything God wants his followers to share with others. It’s not always predictions of the future, or promises of blessings or curses. Most of the time it’s encouragement and wisdom. Morsels of God’s profound understanding of the human psyche. Statements about life which—all things being equal—tend to be true.

Those who don’t read their bibles, or only stick to a few favorite passages, tend to be just as clueless about prophecy as pagans. They figure prophecy consists of denouncing sin and foretelling a judgment day. Of scattered End Times predictions which they can cobble together into a timeline. Of promises, where everything’s “yes” and “amen” 2Co 1.20 because God wants to bless his kids’ socks off. As if the only ways God speaks are thunderous divine decrees, forecasting history, and wish-granting.

We gotta actually read the Prophets. They’re not just rants and threats for the wicked, and glories evermore for the righteous. They’re God talking to his people, through one of the few people who are still listening to him. Telling ’em whatever’s on his mind. Yes, sometimes he’s pissed at their sins. Other times he’s just telling them (and us) what he likes. How to behave. How to love one another. How to love him.

Reducing prophecy to just predictions and promises means we’re not really trying to understand God’s way of thinking. We just want stuff from him. We want promises and blessings, and we wanna hold God to them, like a contract we wish to manipulate in our favor. Our relationships with God don’t have a whole lot of trust in ’em.

So the location of Isaiah 40.31 is right in the middle of sage advice. That means these actually aren’t promises: God (and his prophet) are describing how humans and life work. Well, how they usually work: All things being equal, they’re true. But sometimes things aren’t equal, and there are exceptions.

Ordinarily those who wait on the LORD renew their strength. But we all know of exceptions. Like Christians who died while waiting on the LORD—either waiting for him to get ’em out of their circumstances, or cure their illnesses, or even just for Jesus to return within their lifetime. But God, for his own reasons, let things happen as they happen, and nobody’s strength was renewed.

Uh-oh.

Shall renew their strength?

Part of the problem is that word “shall” in the King James Version. It’s a future-tense verb, like “will,” but we use it when it’s strongly determined this is gonna happen: “You will go to school” describes what you’re likely gonna do tomorrow, but “You shall go to school tomorrow” is what you’re definitely doing tomorrow—or you’re in trouble or something.

So doesn’t “shall” automatically turn this verse into a guarantee? Nope.

In fact, the verb yakhalýfu/“they are changing,” isn’t even future tense. Late biblical Hebrew didn’t even have future-tense verbs. Future was implied based on context. This is an imperfect-tense verb (the action is still happening, or incomplete), and it’s figured to be future because it’s a hifil verb, a form which implies the subjects aren’t doing the action themselves, but are encouraging it.

So those who wait on the LORD haven’t actually changed their own strength: Someone else is changing it. The LORD, apparently. Wait on him, depend on him, and he’ll strengthen them.

Well, usually. Wise advice is situational and conditional. Like I said, we can point to exceptions.

Like Samson ben Manoa. He’s always a good example of what not to do. Dude regularly took God for granted, figuring God’d always come through for him no matter what. No matter how many commands and vows Samson broke, he trusted God to always provide him with the supernatural might to smite his enemies. And God did… till he didn’t, and let Samson’s enemies arrest and blind him. Jg 16.20-21 At a certain point, renewing Samson’s strength didn’t work for God.

Sometimes renewing our strength doesn’t work for God either. If we’re taking advantage of him like Samson did, and our lifestyles have no respect for God’s wishes (or common sense; we’re just working ourselves to death with no rest, no time management, no limits), sometimes God renews nothing. He did command his people to rest, remember? Ex 20.8-11

Y’know, a lot of people who love this verse, are Christians who are burning the candle at both ends. They don’t rest; they overwork themselves, and justify it by saying, “God’ll replenish me. He promised he would.” And sometimes their churches are complicit. Rather than recognize the limited time of their volunteers, they promise, “God will reward you for your dedication,” and skip the fact it’s their dedication to him. Not their church’s pet ministries.

Fact is, if we’re not wise with our time and strength, and depend on God to make up for our lack of self-control, he may very well renew nothing. We’ll burn out. We’ll learn our lesson the hard way.

So when the verse describes the qoya/“[those] waiting,” it means they’re eagerly looking for God. Ge 49.18, Ps 39.8, Is 59.11, Jr 14.19, Lm 2.16, Jb 3.9 They’re trying to follow him. They don’t wanna get ahead of him, and have to look back for him once they tire. They wanna stick to his side. They stop when he stops. They start when he says go.

It’s about closeness, intimacy, relationship. It’s not about working our hardest, then turning to God once our motor runs down. It’s about following God as far as he goes. And when we feel we can’t go any further, his strength empowers us to rise up, like the wing of an eagle (it’s not about gliding or soaring, but about the way eagles raise their wings when they’re about to take off) and off we fly.

When we’re doing the Lord’s work, we’d better be doing it with the Lord. It’s not the Lord’s work any other way.