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Comment – Voice in the wilderness

April 2008

Sometimes the briefest conversations can be the most important. We find an example in Isaiah 40:6 – ‘The voice said, “Cry out!” And he said, “What shall I cry?”’

The commentators argue over who said what, and in a sense it doesn’t matter. But I shall assume that ‘the voice’ that says ‘cry out’ is the voice of God and that the question comes from the prophet – ‘the voice in the wilderness’ mentioned in verse 3 and applied to John the Baptist in Matthew 3:3.

The word ‘cry’ is a common Hebrew word meaning ‘call’ and usually signifies raising the voice to deliver a message or petition. It is the cry of a prophet (Jeremiah 2:2; Jonah 3:4), a watchman (Jeremiah 31:6), or a herald who brings good news (v.2). The command to ‘cry out’, therefore, is a command to preach.

The key question

But notice the preacher’s response: ‘What shall I cry?’ This isn’t about finding a subject for Sunday morning’s sermon but rather about the whole thrust and direction of a preaching ministry. And it is the key question we need to ask continually.

Notice how the questioner is not content to stop there but continues with a complaint: ‘All flesh is grass and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, because the breath of the Lord blows upon it’ (vv. 6-7).

This suggests that the preacher’s search for a message is hindered by human nature – perhaps his own and certainly that of his hearers. ‘What shall I cry,’ he asks, ‘seeing that I am a man of flesh – weak, foolish and tongue-tied when it comes to making men see the mystery of God?’

Yet amazingly, God wants it that way! He deliberately chooses weak and foolish means to humble the arrogant wisdom of the world. He has determined to save those who believe ‘by the foolishness of the message preached’ and by the use of earthen vessels. Why? So that ‘the excellence of the power might be of God and not of us’ (1 Corinthians 1:18-29; 2 Corinthians 4:7).

Beware God’s breath

If the preacher’s ‘flesh’ is a hindrance, how much more that of his hearers! What can we say to convince an unbelieving world? How can we respond to the steam-roller of hedonism, materialism and atheism that flattens all before it and crushes the preacher’s feeble words almost before they leave his lips?

We may feel that modern society is unique in its rejection of the gospel message but this is not so. We face nothing that the early church and Jesus himself did not experience before us, not to mention the faithful down the centuries.

What it does mean, however, is that we dare not rely on the ‘flesh’ if the message is to prosper. We dare not seek success through friendship with the world – adopting the world’s methods, desires and agenda to further God’s kingdom. If we do, beware the breath of God, for he will ‘blow upon’ our effort and consume our work. Our constructions of wood, hay and stubble will go up in flames.

Christ in his Word

But eventually the preacher gets it right. ‘The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands for ever’ (v.8). What shall we preach? ‘Preach the word’, replies Paul, referring to the Scriptures (2 Timothy 4:2). And why should that simple formula succeed where all else fails? Because, as Isaiah 40 demonstrates magnificently, the Scriptures reveal Christ.

‘You who bring good tidings, lift up your voice with strength … be not afraid; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!”’ (v.9). And if we do? Then ‘the glory of the Lord shall be revealed … for the mouth of the Lord has spoken’ (v.5).

Here, then, is the answer to the question, ‘What shall I cry?’ We are to preach Christ and him crucified. It is the only message we need and the only guarantee of success (1 Corinthians 2:2).

But isn’t that a limited message, unappealing to the sophisticated people of our day? Not at all, for ‘in [Christ] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ (Colossians 2:3). Our task is to un-hide all we can of the ‘unsearchable riches of Christ’ (Ephesians 3:8).

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