Rivers in the Desert
It’s been a hard January in our family. As usual, the cold has driven both our family and our neighbors inside, limiting our interactions to quick, teeth-chattering hellos as we dash into our houses. The Omicron wave has killed nearly all get-togethers and left my wife and 2-year-old son, who practically live outside during the warm months, imprisoned in our house. Cabin fever is running higher than ever this year as we wonder when will COVID ever be over.
I know we’re not alone. Those feelings are just a small taste of the common state of life the Bible portrays as “exile.” As I’ve written before, exile is physical separation, yes, but even more, it’s a deep longing caused when our present circumstances are not what they ought to be.
So I’ve found it extremely comforting to read God’s promises to people in exile. In Isaiah 43, God speaks to the people of Judah, who had been exiled for years in Babylon. And He promises both that He is now and will keep doing miracles to sustain His people. Why does God do this? So that His people would praise Him.
Here is the key passage in Isaiah 43. It is spoken by “The LORD, the Creator of Israel, your King” (v. 15):
16 Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters,
17 who brings forth chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
18 “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old.
19 Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
20 The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people,
21 the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise.
Let’s unpack each verse.
Verse 16 recalls God splitting the Red Sea and the Jordan River, both miracles over natural forces. But it describes God’s actions as present and ongoing. As I’ve argued before, God is doing miracles all the time, even today. The gift of miracles has ceased, but God’s miracles have not.
Verse 17 recalls God destroying the ancient Egyptian army, a miracle over cultural forces. But again, Isaiah describes this as a present and ongoing action. Even today, God can and does make the most powerful cultural forces on earth do what He wants, even to the point of destroying themselves.
Verse 18 says, You ain’t seen nothing yet. John Calvin says of this verse, “the glory of this second deliverance shall be so great as to throw the former into the shade.”
Verse 19 says God is “doing a new thing.” What is this new thing? Some have said the new thing is the end of the Babylonian captivity and restoration of the temple. Some have said it’s the coming of the Messiah. Calvin says it’s both. “We ought here to include,” he writes, “the whole period which followed the redemption from Babylon, down to the coming of Christ.”
We are still living under the deliverance of Christ. And verses 19-21 tell us that this second, ongoing deliverance has the same key features as the first:
1. It includes natural miracles. In the midst of a desert without any water, God will create a river, flowing with abundant water.
2. It includes cultural miracles. A wilderness is the lack of culture (no roadways, no subjugation of wild animals). Yet even there, God will create the way, that is the culture, His people need.
3. The purpose of these miraculous acts is for God’s people to praise Him. In other words, God sustains the church for His own glory.
These miraculous acts of God are ongoing, even today, because they flow from His character. It’s who He is. And that should give us hope. In the midst of a pandemic, a harsh winter or even financial hardship, we can trust that God is, as Herman Bavinck says, the one “who subjects all the forces of nature and makes them serviceable to grace.” When we are fretting about foreign conflicts or domestic politics or the cultural trends of our communities, we can trust that even now, God is performing miracles to create the culture His people need and to destroy the culture that truly threatens His people.
Even when we’re in a desert or a bleak January, we can trust that God is sustaining us and delivering us.