Those who wait on the Lord.

Isaiah 40.31.

Isaiah 40.31 NKJV
But those who wait on the LORD
Shall renew their strength;
They shall mount up with wings like eagles,
They shall run and not be weary,
They shall walk and not faint.

When I visit fellow Christians’ homes, a lot of ’em have a painting or mass-produced sculpture of an eagle somewhere. Some of the art’s of an American bald eagle, and are meant to express the owner’s patriotism. Others were purchased at the local Family Christian Stores, back when they were still around. Bald eagle or not, connection to God ’n country or not, they’re meant to express the owner’s trust in God. They’re universally captioned with this particular Isaiah verse, in various translations, always mounting up with wings as eagles.

The eagle appeals to a lot of Christians because of the idea Isaiah expressed: The LORD Almighty, our creator, has inexhaustible strength, Is 40.28 and empowers the weak. Is 40.29 Even the strongest of us may fail, Is 40.30 but God can renew our strength. Indefinitely. Is 40.31

It’s great encouragement for those of us who have energy-draining jobs or lives. When our own batteries are depleted or dead, God can recharge ’em. When our resources are taxed, God always has more. Many’s the time I’ve told my students, “I ran out of patience with you. Ran out long ago. I’m drawing on God’s patience now.” Tapping what people like to call “God’s dýnamis power”—showing off one of the Greek words they think they know, by which they mean his explosive power, but more accurately is his dynamo of endless cosmic supply. Either way, his power’s available to every Christian. Right?

Actually… right. It is available to every Christian.

But it’s not promised, which is how we Christians wind up taking this verse out of context. We look on it as a promise of God, a prophecy of something he’s guaranteed to give us. And while it is a prophecy, it’s not a promise. It’s situational. And it takes wisdom to recognize whether we’re in that situation… or whether we’re foolishly burning ourselves out for no good reason.

Did you remember what prophecy is?

Isaiah’s a prophet, and Isaiah is a prophetic book. But Christians—mostly because we don’t read our bibles, and are unfamiliar with prophetic literature—don’t always understand what prophecies are. So I gotta remind you: Prophecy is anything God says to his people secondhand, through his prophets.

The bible is full of prophecy, ’cause God spoke to Noah, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, John; and the prophet Jesus spoke to his apostles. Yes God can, and does, speak directly to his kids. But sometimes we’re not listening, or we’re too dense to understand him. Or sometimes we understand him quite well, but in order to be sure it’s really him, he’s gotta say the same thing to somebody else as confirmation.

But let me reiterate: Prophecy is everything God tells his people. It’s not just predictions of the future. And unfortunately that’s how pagans define prophecy… and how many a Christian has learned to, with no help from non-supernaturalist Christians and “prophecy scholars.” These bungled definitions mean a lot of Christians are unfamiliar with how God’s messages work… and think every prophecy is a promise.

And sometimes they’re not! Sometimes it’s commands, declarations, and instructions. Sometimes—as is the case of today’s passage—it’s wisdom, morsels of God’s profound understanding of the human psyche, or statements about life which (all things being equal) tend to be true.

Those who don’t read their bibles, tend to claim everything God says in the bible is a promise, is a “yes” and “amen.” As if God can’t speak in any other genre but wish-granting, foretelling, and thunderous divine decrees. Sometimes all he’s doing is telling us what he likes. How to behave. How to love one another. How to love him.

That’s what most prophetic literature consists of. It’s not just rants and threats against the wicked, and glories evermore for the righteous. It’s God talking to his people about whatever’s on his mind. Treating it all like promises means we’re not even trying to understand God. We’re just mining his words for rewards. We want stuff we can hold God to, like a contract we wanna manipulate in our favor.

It means our relationship with God doesn’t have a whole lot of trust in it.

This particular part of Isaiah falls into the category of wisdom literature. It’s not commands nor guarantees, no matter how often people claim they are. It’s situational stuff. All things being equal, they’re true. And sometimes things aren’t equal, and there are exceptions.

Shall they renew their strength?

People read that word “shall,” whether it’s in the King James Version or a similar translation like the NKJV, and leap to the conclusion this passage isn’t just generically describing God’s followers. It’s not that when we trust in God, he tends to renew our strength when we’ve run low. It’s that he shall renew our strength. Isaiah says so. “Shall” makes it a guarantee!

It’s really not. The verb יַחֲלִ֣יפוּ/yakhlífu, which the KJV renders “shall renew,” isn’t a future-tense verb. Late Biblical Hebrew actually doesn’t have future-tense verbs. This is what we call a hifíl verb, which means the subject didn’t do the action so much as make it happen. Those who wait on the LORD haven’t changed their own strength from empty to full—we don’t achieve any such thing. But waiting on the LORD is what contributed to it happening. If we depend on God, he’ll strengthen us.

Usually. Like I said, wisdom literature is situational.

I point you to Samson. (He’s always a useful example of what not to do.) Dude took God for granted, figuring God would always come through for him, no matter what. No matter how many commands and vows he broke. He trusted God to always provide him with supernatural strength to smite his enemies, and God did… till he didn’t, and let Samson’s enemies take him. Jg 16.20-21 Renewing Samson’s strength didn’t suit God’s purposes.

And sometimes renewing our strength doesn’t suit God’s purposes either. It just encourages us to take him for granted, and expect him to keep us away from burnout. Even though our lifestyles have no time management, no limits, and take no sabbaths. God commanded his people to rest, remember? Ex 20.8-11 Yet Christian ministers are regularly guilty of working seven days a week, with no breaks—and no surprise, we burn out. We figure we do wait on the LORD—we take little breaks for prayer, like Jesus did, Mk 1.35-37 and we’re doing the LORD’s work; shouldn’t he come through for us in return? Doesn’t he owe us one?

This is why so many Christians like to reinterpret this verse to mean God will strengthen his followers. It justifies all our exhaustion, all the overwork, all the stress, all the caffeine overuse: “God will replenish me. He promised he would.” Worse, it justifies all the commitments we demand from those under us. Many a church burns out its volunteers by promising them, “God promises to reward you for your dedication”—and he promised no such thing. He did promise stress, though. Jn 16.33

Fact is, when we’re not wise with our strength, when we depend on God to make up for our lack of self-control (which he expects us to practice), he may renew nothing. We’ll burn out. We’ll learn our lesson the hard way.

To really wait on the LORD.

I translate the verse thisaway.

Isaiah 40.31 KWL
Those who wait for the LORD grow in strength. Their wings climb like eagles’.
They run and aren’t exhausted; walk and don’t tire.

The word קוֹיֵ֤/qoyé describes someone who’s waiting for God to do something. Hence some bibles translate it “hope,” like you’ll find in Psalm 130. People who wait for God expect him to act.

And expect him to act first. They’re following him. They’re not running ahead of him, looking back once they get tired and wonder why the guy with the Gatorade hasn’t kept up. They’re running alongside him. They stop when he stops, 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 him as far as he goes. And when we feel we can’t go any further, we grow in his strength. We climb, or gain altitude, like an eagle. We fly. Yeah that’s a metaphor; we’re not gonna literally fly, or (because of the KJV’s phrasing “mount up on wings as eagles”) ride some heavenly giant bird, like hobbits in The Return of the King. But when we’re doing the LORD’s work, we’re given the LORD’s power to do so with the LORD. Shouldn’t do it any other way.

Context.

Synchroblog, Feb. 2015.