The LORD will surely comfort Zion and look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the LORD. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing. (Isaiah 51.3)
Going Through the Motions
It’s been an unusually tough year for an unusually high number of people. Maladies of every sort—physical, financial, emotional, and moral—have rampaged with extreme virulence. Inability to curtail unemployment, warfare, the N1H1 pandemic, political strife, violence, discrimination, environmental crimes, and other ills has severely impacted many on deeply personal levels. This Thanksgiving season finds some of us grasping at straws to give thanks. Having dealt with serious setbacks, even the most generic reasons for thankfulness strain our spirits. And struggling to feel grateful is one of the emptiest sensations any believer can possibly experience.
Israel was very familiar with similarly hollow feelings. Its history seemed stuck in a pattern of one step forward, two steps back. Time after time, God favors His people by routing their oppressors and returning what was stolen from them. They replant their farms, rebuild their cities, and gather to celebrate harvest, joyously singing Psalm 107: “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the LORD say this—those he redeemed from the hand of the foe… Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men. Let them sacrifice thank offerings and tell of his works with songs of joy.” (v1-2, 21-22) Then, once they’re prospering, their enemies come back to seize their fields, destroy their homes, and enslave them all over again. The harvest festivals still take place. The songs remain the same. But for many who lose their land, security, and freedom to forces beyond their control, just going through the motions of thanksgiving takes all they have.
Products of God’s Promise
Isaiah is no stranger to these cycles. In almost 50 years as Israel’s preeminent prophet, he sees it rebound, fall, and rebound again three times. He watches Jerusalem, or “Zion,” toggle between a war zone and reconstruction site his entire life, and it distresses him to observe God’s people going in circles. To grasp his concern, imagine Jerusalem is modern Kabul and he's responsible for the faith of a tattered city serially besieged by three regimes. His office gives him a prominent role in annual thanksgiving services. Facing the congregation of weary souls, he reaches for words to reinvigorate their hope and renew their joy.
Rather than press the people to be grateful, Isaiah does what every great prophet does. He steps aside and lets God speak. He begins His message by saying, “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the LORD: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn.” (Isaiah 51.1) God draws Israel’s memory back to Abraham and Sarah, its parents. When I called Abraham, He says in verse 2, “he was but one, and I blessed him and made him many.” The people realize they’re products of God’s promise: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.” (Genesis 12.2) This primes their faith to receive God’s promise to them: “The LORD will surely comfort Zion and look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the LORD. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing.” (v3)
Notice the subtle distinction between what God has yet to do and what He’s already done. He will comfort Jerusalem and show compassion on her turmoil. He will replenish her losses and heal her lands. But He’s already instilled her with joy and gladness, thanksgiving and music. They’re hidden deep within her, waiting to be found. Therefore, they’re not contingent on Israel’s capacity to conjure gratitude despite its miseries. They remain eternally present within its people because they represent the fulfillment of promise. When Israel digests this—and why that makes it precious to the God Who vowed to raise a great nation from Abraham’s seed—its joy, gladness, thanksgiving, and singing will be unaffected by fluctuating circumstances. It’s living proof God honors His Word.
We, too, are living proof of God’s faithfulness. When the Holy Spirit arrives at Pentecost, Peter proclaims, “This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” (Acts 2.16-17) All people—that’s each and every one of us, with no one excluded for any reason. Being products of this promise makes us precious to Him. But not only are we living proof of God’s all-inclusive promise, we also verify its longevity, which Peter describes in verse 39: “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” We’re walking, talking vessels of hidden thanks just waiting to be found. Knowing joy and gladness, thanksgiving and singing reside in us primes us to receive God’s promises. He will comfort us and attend to our struggles. He will replenish our losses and heal us. If we can’t find it in us to feel grateful for where we are presently, we can rejoice and thank God we’re here, exactly as He promised through Isaiah, Joel, and Peter thousands of years ago.
As living proof God honors His promises, thanks is already and always in us, unaffected by our hardships and circumstances.
(Next: Overflowing with Thanks)