Raised in an assembly which, during my formative years, used Sankey's Sacred Songs and Solos as an all-purpose hymnbook, I was weaned on tear-jerking pieces of Victorian sentimentality ("Where is my wandering boy tonight" springs to mind), as well as some outstandingly robust choir pieces. Amongst the latter was "Ho, reapers in the whitened harvest!" As a boy I greatly relished that introductory "Ho!", but the real joy of the hymn was its chorus ("For they that wait upon the Lord"); a glorious slice of Hebrew poetry lifted straight from Isaiah, and set to stirring music by James McGranahan. Here's the much-loved passage in its context:
Why sayest thou, O Jacob, and speakest, O Israel, My way is hid from the Lord, and my judgment is passed over from my God? Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? there is no searching of his understanding. He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: 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 (Isa 40.27-31).
The passage divides into two sections: Israel's Anxiety (v 27) and The Prophet's Answer (vv 28-31). The chosen nation felt exhausted and abandoned. Foes outside and failure inside had so sapped Israel's spiritual vitality that it had almost given up hope. Its words amount to a despairing conclusion that the Lord was no longer interested, and had washed His hands of His people. The pressures of life and the frustrations of Christian service can sometimes produce similar feelings of despondency. But the prophet's robust answer is a clarion call to encouragement – not because believers are intrinsically resilient, but because God is unfailingly sufficient. Being "the Creator of the ends of the earth", all authority is His to do as He pleases in the world He has made. In His awesome sovereignty He will unfailingly accomplish His purpose.
The Prophet's Answer is worth closer attention. It consists of a revelation, a remedy, and a result. First comes a revelation about God and man. We are reminded of fundamental truths which we all know, but sometimes forget. The double challenge, "Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard …?", grabs the reader by the lapels for a good spiritual shake-up. Our God is "the everlasting God", infinitely greater than our circumstances or our fears. Creatures of time are inevitably bound by its constraints, but not God, who works His will according to His own timetable. Further, He is "the Lord". The meaning of that great name was explained to Moses as "I AM THAT I AM" (Ex 3.14), indicating self-existence, independence, and total competence for every situation. Such a God has no needs, but can meet ours. That He "fainteth not, neither is weary" testifies to inexhaustible divine energy. To be informed that "there is no searching of his understanding" is to be reminded of His inscrutable wisdom. Human intelligence is quantifiable, limited and derived; God's is totally beyond assessment. All the boasted technological achievements of men stem from the Creator's gifts, while God's own unfathomable understanding defeats all efforts to map it out. As Moses observed, "The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law" (Deut 29.29). Things revealed concern our duty; things secret concern God's inviolable majesty. Yet Isaiah's final disclosure about God is His astonishing generosity to His feeble creatures: "He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength." That is exactly what we need, for the repeated word "faint" (appearing four times in the section) sums up our essential frailty. Isaiah's imagery doesn't flatter. What is man at best? "All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: the grass withereth, the flower fadeth …" (Isa 40.6-7). Further, the proud nations of the world (and Isaiah is particularly thinking of superpowers like Assyria and Babylon) are like "a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance" (Isa 40.15). During the famously hot summer of 1976, under strict maternal direction, I had to empty out the bathwater for the benefit of thirsty garden plants, but even in such drought conditions a drip spilled from a bucket was not worth troubling about. What better picture of utter insignificance can you imagine?
What, then, is the remedy for weak, helpless man? It is marvellously simple: "wait upon the Lord". Have you ever wondered what answer the Philippian jailor was expecting when he asked "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" (Acts 16.30). The verb 'do' normally presupposes action of some kind, such as reformation of character, ritual observance, or admission into an organisation. All these constitute the common gospel of works preached by those who spurn God's free grace in Christ. But Paul simply said "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ". Equally direct but plain is Isaiah's cure for human weakness: those who have no energy in themselves are exhorted to lean hard on the only One who does. "Wait" incorporates the ideas of dependence, confidence, and patience. The same Hebrew word (in bold) appears in the following verses:
"Lead me in thy truth, and teach me: for thou art the God of my salvation; on thee do I wait all the day" (Ps 25.5).
"I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope" (Ps 130.5).
"And I will wait upon the Lord, that hideth his face from the house of Jacob, and I will look for him" (Isa 8.17).
"The Lord is good unto them that wait for him, to the soul that seeketh him" (Lam 3.25).
One of the key features of Hebrew poetry is the parallel clause, which so often helps us interpret the meaning of words. To wait on the Lord, we notice, means constantly to hope in Him, to look for Him, to seek Him. And what is the practical result for those who wait upon the Lord? Not only are they preserved from giving way; they are, more positively, enabled to "mount up with wings as eagles; … run, and not be weary; … walk, and not faint" (Isa 40.31). Isaiah uses three metaphors: mounting up, running and walking. There is, however, something odd about them. We might expect the logical sequence (gathering speed, as it were) of walking, running and finally soaring up into the sky; but no, it is the opposite. Moments of exhilarating spiritual uplift may be comparatively few; even racing for gold isn't common. But the slow, solid discipline of the daily walk is for all of us. It is the bread-and-butter norm of the Christian life, and not to be despised for that. One of my memories of the Noddy stories is Mr Plod the policeman, so-called, I presume, because he simply kept on treading his beat. There is nothing spectacular about plodding, but it is the recipe for steady progress in grace. It may be breathtaking to rise up like an eagle, or even to sprint like an Olympic athlete, but for most of us the course is a pathway for which we need the stamina to press on doggedly day after day. If we are walking in faith and truth and love (homework: can you find the Scripture references for these?), there is no shame in simply plodding on loyally and humbly for God.