broken rope xIsaiah 43:16-21

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with Tony W. Cartledge

“I am about to do a new thing; … I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” — Isaiah 43:19

God’s New Thing

Have you ever felt so tired or stressed or misunderstood that you were at the end of the proverbial rope? You may recall a popular poster or Facebook post featuring a kitten hanging on to a rope, with a slogan suggesting that if you reach the end of your rope, you should tie a knot and hang on.

But is that the best we can do? To just hang on and hope we don’t fall into whatever dangers lie below? Is there no hope of something better?

The God who speaks(v. 16a)

In today’s text, a prophet called Isaiah spoke to a captive people at the end of their rope. Prophets didn’t talk like ordinary people, at least during the Old Testament period. When they believed they were speaking directly for God, known to the Hebrews as Yahweh (translated in all caps as “LORD”), prophets tended to preach in poetic oracles. Boldly, they dared to begin with the words: “Thus says the LORD …,” or to conclude with “… says Yahweh.”

In the pointed and challenging oracle we’re now considering, Isaiah speaks for the Lord who controls both the sea and the tides of war (vv. 16-17a), but who also understands the grief of those who are defeated, depressed, feeling as if their fire has gone out, or dwelling on the past (vv. 17a-18).

To those who feel imprisoned or exiled, Isaiah said, God is preparing to do “a new thing,” to make a hopeful pathway in the wilderness and to flood the dry desert of their existence with a life-giving river (v. 19). Fearful people could find the security of knowing that God cared for them in the midst of their wilderness, promising them the water of life in such abundance that even the creatures of the desert would offer praise to the divine redeemer.

The God of new things(vv. 16b-21)

What’s going on in this text? To whom is Isaiah speaking, and why does he want them to look forward instead of backward? And what might any of this have to do with us?

This oracle comes from a part of Isaiah’s prophecy that scholars call “Second Isaiah,” or “Deutero-Isaiah.” The Isaiah for whom the book is named lived and prophesied in Jerusalem during the eighth century, B.C.E.

The kingdom was divided at that time, with most of the tribes living in northern Palestine with their capital in Samaria (Israel), while a smaller kingdom known as Judah occupied the south, with its capital in Jerusalem. Isaiah lived in Jerusalem but directed his preaching to the people of both kingdoms. His preaching warned the people to turn from their wicked ways and devote themselves to God, lest evil befall them.

The people of the northern kingdom, who seemed particularly prone to idolatry, were the first to taste divine judgment. They fell to the Assyrians in 721 B.C.E., during the first Isaiah’s lifetime.

The southern kingdom of Judah also grew more distant from God, although there were periodic attempts at national renewal. Nearly 100 years later, in the latter part of the seventh century, the prophet Jeremiah and the young King Josiah sought to instigate a revival of interest in the worship of Yahweh, but it seemed to have been too little and too late.

In the early years of the sixth century, Judah was overrun by the Babylonians, who had taken power from the Assyrians. After the initial conquest in 597 B.C.E., King Nebuchadnezzar ordered that many of Judah’s best leaders and most promising young people be marched into exile. Many more followed in 587 B.C.E., after the puppet king Zedekiah rebelled, leading the Babylonians to sack the city of Jerusalem and destroy the temple.

For a generation or more, the people lived a captive existence in the land of Babylon. They were allowed a limited amount of freedom, but they could not build a temple to Yahweh, return home, or restore Jerusalem and possess the land of the promise that had defined them for so many years. For the faithful, it was a dark and nearly hopeless time.

In the midst of that bleak period, God raised up a new prophet to carry on the former Isaiah’s work. Whereas Isaiah of Jerusalem had lived among a free people and had spoken of judgment to come, Isaiah of the exile lived among a captive people who had already been judged, and he spoke of a future and a hope.

In Isa. 43:16-21, the prophet addressed captives who were bemoaning their fate, recalling God’s great acts of the past but apparently not believing that God still had power to work in the present. They remembered how God once redeemed Israel from their bondage in Egypt by making a way through the Red Sea and by drowning the pursuing Egyptians. But they apparently didn’t think God could do anything about their current imprisonment.

The divinely inspired prophet wanted to break the captives out of that cognitive rut. “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old,” he said. “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (vv. 18-19a). Isaiah wanted the people to think new thoughts and have new hopes, to know that God still ruled with a love for Israel that had not given up.

“I will do a new thing,” God said. And what was that new thing? It was a pledge that God would lead them out of Babylon and back to the Promised Land. God would make a road through the wilderness for them, and make rivers run in the desert to provide the people with water and make possible their crossing. God’s blessing to Israel would be such that even the wild animals of the desert, like jackals and ostriches, would give praise to God for blessings bestowed (vv. 19b-21).

The time had come to stop looking backward. “Forget those things that are in the past!” Isaiah said. “Look forward to something new!”

And God’s promise came true – not in the way Isaiah described, for he spoke in metaphors, as prophets often did. A highway did not unroll itself beside streams erupting in the desert to facilitate Israel’s return to the land of promise. Instead, an army led by King Cyrus the Persian conquered the Babylonians in 538 B.C.E. Soon after, the new monarch issued a decree allowing the Hebrews to go home.

Many had become comfortable in Babylon and chose to remain there, but waves of Hebrews were once again free to return, rebuild, and restore Jerusalem as the center of worship to Yahweh, the God whose love never ends.

And more new things …

But that was not the end of God’s ability to bring about new things. Nearly 600 years later, God’s people were still falling short of God’s expectations. There was no lack of priests and other religious leaders who sought to keep the people on track, but many had become insulated, rule-bound, and focused more on ritual observance than ethical obedience.

In many ways, they were not unlike other peoples: even religious folk can be remarkably self-centered. When John the baptizer arrived on the scene, he told priests and parishioners alike to repent (Matt. 3:1-12).

That was when, so the Gospels declare, God dared to venture into our world through the life and person of Jesus Christ. As God incarnate, Jesus came into our world declaring that he himself was the way of life and the water of life. To his disciples, Jesus said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). To the Samaritan woman at the well, he said “those who drink of the water that I give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14).

Through Christ’s death and resurrection, something absolutely new and marvelous took place. We don’t have to live in the old ways, dominated by sin and failure. We can come to know something new: the forgiveness we find through the shed blood of Christ leads us to the refreshing water of the Holy Spirit’s presence. God is still the God of things that are alive and new.

The Apostle Paul knew this. In a letter to the Corinthian Christians, he said: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor. 5:17).

Christians in today’s world may know what it is like to feel lost, overwhelmed by bad habits and unable to change. They may feel imprisoned by an unrewarding job, an unappreciative family, or unsupportive friends. They may be tempted to spend the present pouting over the past and thus failing to see a better future.

Isaiah would say to them, as he said to Israel: “Forget the past. Look to the future. Trust in the new thing that God wants to do in you.”

There is no promise that God will make our bosses any nicer, our children more cooperative, our spouses more attentive, or our neighbors more caring. But there is always the promise that we are never alone when the Spirit of God lives in us. There is the promise that God will be with us in the midst of our trials and will help us to bring something new and something good even from the darkest days of life.

God wants to bring good changes into our lives, but we must answer the question: will we choose to remain in the fading days of the past, or come along on the road of life? NFJ

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Adult Teaching Resources

Download the PDF for March 13, 2016 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.

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Additional Links/Resources
Read Scripture online: Isaiah 43:16-21



Teacher Prep | Youth & This Session

Do you ever feel like you need to start over? Like you need a redo on the day? Have you ever thought, “I need to go back to bed and wake up all over again”? Most of us have, so we need to allow our students to think the same way as well. Our students will make mistakes. Some of them will be more public than others, but they will all make mistakes. How we handle our responses to these mistakes, usually is how our relationship will continue or not continue with that student. There are times when we even need to tell students to let go and start over, because the path that they are going down in leading no where. As you help your students start over, remember to do it filled with grace.

Teaching Resources | Download

Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.

Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.

“Starting Over Isn’t Crazy” from The Beaver via

Additional Links/Resources
Read Scripture online: Isaiah 43:16-21