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Sing (Ululate), Because of God's Unfailing Love

Date: Jul. 16, 2017

Author: Bob Henkins

Isaiah 54:1-10

Key Verse: Isaiah 54:10

“Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you.”

Let me ask you a question, when was the last time you unexpectedly let out a shout of joy, where you just let it go like, “Whoohooo!”? We were talking on Friday and thought kids have an easier time to express their emotions than adults. They freely express their sadness or joy without hindrance. When I was first asked to deliver this message at the Malaysian Conference I looked at the outline of the conference and saw the theme, “Grace and Peace” and I thought to myself, “That’s nice, I really like grace and peace.” But as I looked further down the outline I saw the topic of this message which was, “Grace Sings” and it said, sing, ululate, barren woman. And I thought to myself, “Barren woman?? What do I know about barren women? What is this ululate, I’ve never heard of it before, what does it mean?” So, I looked it up and dictionary.com said that ululate means to howl like a dog, to sing loudly from the back of your throat in a high voice as an expression of extreme joy. And then I thought to myself, “Great, what have I gotten myself into, I don’t know anything about ululating.” But then I thought, “Well, I’ve tasted the grace of God and his grace has given me joy,” so I said, “Ok I’ll do it.” The only part I’m not sure about it the howling. But about two months ago we got a new puppy and he howled every night when went to sleep, so I thought maybe God was helping me out with that part too. Let’s start with prayer.

You may not know it, but this chapter is considered one of the more joyful chapters in the Bible, it is about singing, bursting into song and shouting for joy. It comes in response to chapter 53 the suffering servant. It is Isaiah’s reaction to hearing such wonderfully good news, he just can’t contain himself. So, let’s start by taking a look at verse 1. “Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the Lord.” So, this is supposed to be joyful and full of singing, but when you first read this verse it’s a bit confusing because it seems to be urging a barren woman to sing, burst, and shout for joy because she’s going to have more children than a married woman. But after I read it, the first thing that popped into my head is, “How can a barren woman have children, let alone more children than a healthy woman with a husband?” Taken out of context it could almost seem cruel, like mocking a someone who is in the midst of one of their darkest times of their life. So, to understand the meaning of the message we need to understand the context in which it takes place. The once great nation of Israel, who were called to be the “people of God”, who were to be “God’s treasured possession”, they lived under God and enjoyed all his blessings, his protection, love, provision. They went from slaves to conquerors that inherited the promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey. For a time, they enjoyed God’s blessing, but then they rebelled and sinned against God, rejecting Him and turned to idol worship. Essentially, they became spiritual adulterers. God wasn’t about to force himself upon them, so he said fine you don’t want me, I’ll leave, and God removed his blessing and his protection. After a while things began to fall apart, the nation went through civil war and ended up divided, split in two: into Judah and Israel. Later the nation of Assyria invaded and conquered Israel, eventually Babylon came along and took Judah and everything else, including almost all the people into exile.

This message (Chapter 54) takes place during Israel’s exile to Babylon, and God is actually referring to Israel as the barren woman in verse 1. For all intent and purposes, Israel essentially was like a barren woman because Jerusalem and all Israel had been completely destroyed during the war and the people were put into captivity and carried off as slaves. The people of Israel thought that when they were carried off into exile, God was done with them and the precious covenant that had bound the two together had been broken, null and voided. They thought it was as if God said to them, “You’re dead to me,” and he was cutting them off never to speak with them again. Being cut off from God is essentially the definition of hell. Heaven is where God and his people live together, but hell is the absence of God.

Not only was exile itself making them like a barren woman, but they were actually becoming barren. Not because they were not having kids, they were, but their children were growing up in Babylonia, under Babylonia rules and culture and were becoming more and more like the Babylonians and less and less like the Israelites. Their children were losing their national identity. They even changed their names, like Daniel, was changed to Belteshazzar. And this grieved them tremendously. Not only that, their numbers were greatly diminished because they had been defeated through the war, and the fighting, hunger and sickness was killing them. A few remained, like Shadrach, Meshach; and Abednego, but they were forced to serve Babylonians. The fact that we even remember them as Shadrach, Meshach; and Abednego when their real names were Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, goes to show you how much they lost their identity. The people of Israel fell into despair. They began to lose all hope because their future looked dim and maybe even their very existence in the world would be completely wiped out and they would be completely forgotten as they were being eaten up by the Babylonians. They thought that God was going to hold their sin against them forever.

But then something amazing happened when they least expected it. In their distress, God comforted his people, comfort comfort my people says your God. God came to his people and was going to remember their sins no more. He would not hold their sins against them. In chapter 53, Isaiah had given them the beautiful message about the suffering servant, who would come to save them. Isaiah said, “After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.” (Isa 53:11) Even though this was really good news, still they couldn’t believe that the suffering servant, Jesus, who looked like a root out of dry ground, who was pierced, and crushed, bleeding and crucified, could save them. How could man of sorrows save them when he couldn’t even save himself? The message, although wonderful, was too much for them to believe.

However, Isaiah’s response was completely different than theirs. When Isaiah looked at the incredible salvation through the suffering servant, the man of sorrows he responds by saying: “Sing people sing, why are you just sitting there? Burst into song, and shout for joy” (Isa 54:1). Get up and celebrate for the great thing God has done!! The Israelites thought God was done with them but to their surprise he was not. When they broke the relationship, God allowed the Babylonians to carry them off into exile but God still loved them. Take a look at verse 2-3. ““Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes. For you will spread out to the right and to the left; your descendants will dispossess nations and settle in their desolate cities.” Isaiah was so excited as he saw God’s salvation he could not contain his joy, he said you are not going to be barren any more, in fact you are going to need to get a bigger tent, get longer cords and bigger stakes, stretch it as wide as you possibly can, because you are going to need the space. But when the Israelites looked at their situation, they couldn’t do it because they were defeated and still in exile. There was no way for them to enlarge their tent because they didn’t even own a tent. But what they failed to realize was, God wasn’t asking THEM to do it, HE was going to do it FOR them. Before the Israelites were conquered, their sin was rebellion against God but after they were conquered, their sin changed to despair. Both are sins and both are equally devastating but God’s remedy for them was different. In exile, they needed God’s comfort and his unfailing love. This was God’s grace. God didn’t stop loving them just because they sinned. God’s love is unstoppable.

And now he wanted to show them how much he loved them. Let’s take a look at verses 4-6. ““Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood. For your Maker is your husband— the Lord Almighty is his name— the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth. The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit— a wife who married young, only to be rejected,” says your God.” These verses have the allusion to restoring the covenant God made with them at Mt. Sinai. Being in exile, they were fearful of what would happen to them and afraid of God’s judgment. They were also ashamed of being defeated and dominated by the Babylonians. They were ashamed of their guilty sin before God just like a kid who gets caught with their hand in the cookie jar. They were afraid and ashamed just like their forefathers who were slaves in Egypt, they were now slaves in Babylonia. But just like their slave forefathers, when God brought them out of Egypt he restored them as a people and they became a nation, God was going to restore the people of Israel now and make them a nation once again. God said, “Don’t be afraid or shameful because I will redeem you, and you will forget all the shame of your past. I will restore you once again.” 

Verse 5 is an array of names for God that describe his character. God wants to remind them of who he is and what he will do for them. God is both their maker and their husband. As their maker and creator, God knows them inside and out. He knows their desires and faults but most of all God knows what they need. In that period of history, a woman that didn’t have a husband was disgraced, with no way to provide for her future, but as their husband, God would restore that disgrace by giving them protection and stability. He would be their provider and love them and was always faithful, even after they ran after other lovers, he was still there for them. The relationship between a husband and wife is a special one, they has the closest bond where the two become one. These days, people look at God as a white haired old man sitting on his throne in heaven barking out orders telling people what to do. If you have that view of God, there is no way you can have a close relationship with him, in fact you probably want get a far away as you can. Many people in exile had given up on God, but with God as their husband, that relationship could be renewed and they could draw close to him knowing that he loves them and is faithful to them. God is Lord Almighty, which means no one can defeat him. And if you are with him, who can defeat you. The Israelites had been defeated by the Assyrians and the Babylonians, they had to unlearn that culture of being defeated and relearn how to conquer again, which meant they would have to trust in God for he is the Lord Almighty. God is the Holy one of Israel, He is to be worshipped. He is worthy. These titles are not just little attributes of a little god, but attributes of the one true god, the Lord Almighty. God is our Redeemer, not condemer, which means to God wants to buy us back. It does not matter what you’ve done, how much you have sinned, God is there to find a way to get you back. And lastly, he is called God of all the earth. This implies that God is above all other gods, he is ruler of all. And as God of all the earth, verse 6 tells us that he is going to call Israel back. They were like a deserted wife, distressed in spirit because of her rejection, but all that would be gone for the Lord Almighty was going to lift her up and restore Israel once again. No wonder Isaiah could not contain his joy because Israel’s present situation was not permanent, they were not lost for salvation was on its way.

In the next couple of verses Isaiah explains their situation. Take a look at 7-8. ““For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord your Redeemer.” God reveals his anger as he abandoned Israel for a brief moment and allowed them to be carried off into exile. Love is God’s essential character trait.  And it’s because he loves us, that he gets angry. God gets angry when those He loves corrupt their lives so badly, like a good parent who gets angry when their child messes up their life. If God didn’t love us, he won’t get angry, he wouldn’t care. The good thing about God’s anger, is that it’s temporary. Sure, God may get angry, but he always returns to love. In verses 7-8, God expresses his love for Israel in two ways. God says, “…in deep compassion I will bring you back,” and with “everlasting kindness.” God cares so deeply about his people. God loves them like the prodigal son’s father, who longed for his long lost son to come home again. Most broken marriages failed because they were based upon the emotion kind of love, not God’s type of love. God’s love is not emotional, it’s unchanging, unending, unwavering, undying love. God’s love must be your foundation. Emotional love changes based upon the type of emotion you’re feeling at the moment. But God’s love never changes.

Verse 9 switches to the covenant with Noah. Noah’s covenant was with all people but Abraham was for the people of Israel. Let’s take a look at that verse. ““To me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth. So now I have sworn not to be angry with you, never to rebuke you again.” God had punished Israel, she was abandoned only a moment but they might be reluctant to trust God because of this, God wanted to reassure Israel that his promise is as sure as the one he made with Noah. Verse 10 is the key verse for this passage, it says “Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you.” In this verse, the Greek word for “unfailing love” is “hesed,” and it has such a deep, rich meaning, even now I still don’t fully understand it’s meaning, it is like a covenant of peace, but it even more than just peace, it means a wholesomeness, like you have been made whole, like when Jesus said, “I came to give life to the full.” God wants to restore this wholesomeness to his people. In these verses, you’ll notice how God wants to restore every pain Israel experienced, from barrenness  to many children, from an abandoned woman to one with a loving husband, from no tent to a large open concept home, from fear to joy, from shame to honor, from disgraced to full of grace, from, humiliated to accepted, from rejected to loved, from abandoned to redeemed, so that God’s people would be fully restored and made whole again, where they lacked nothing, like when the prodigal son returned home to his waiting loving father. This is the unfailing love God wanted to show his people The covenant is best expressed by “I will be your God and you will be my people.” This is God’s desire. God wants his people have peace, joy, health, stability. Unfailing love appears twice and compassion 3 times in these verses because God is trying to make a point. God doesn’t want to just call a truce with his people where they stop fighting for a little while only to pick it up again sometime later. God doesn’t want an absence of conflict but true peace, a reconciliation that bring healing and restoration.

The old covenant was conditional based upon “if you obey me fully,” but the problem was the people could not keep God’s commands, so God solved the problem and took man out of the equation and fulfilled all the requirements himself, when Jesus came into the world and took all the sin upon himself as he hung on the cross. He died but was raised to life and sits at God’s right hand in heaven. This renews us and truly restores us. Because of grace we have nothing to prove. God does everything. We need to realize who God is to us. Our failure is we don’t realize who God is and what he is able to do. He is always faithful and will carry out what he says he will do. God will never reject us. There is no greater healing balm than when we know that someone really and truly has our back, someone who you can trust even though they know all your problems and weaknesses. When no one has your back, you feel alone, vulnerable, weak, afraid, always looking over your shoulder.

I know most of you guys have heard me talk about my life before but for those who haven’t heard it before, I will try to make a long story short. I moved out of my parent’s house when I was 19 years old for various reasons. As I was beginning my college career, I moved in with my friend from high school, and all the new-found freedom I had being away from my parent’s house kind of got out of control. Instead of focusing on school, I began to party. Soon I was skipping classes and not turning in schoolwork. My grades began to slip and eventually I was kicked out of school. During this period, I also began to study the Bible but I was living a double life. I appealed to the school and they let me back in but I was on probation. I had to keep my grades up or else I would be expelled. However, my attitude didn’t change, in fact I believe the partying intensified and began to affect all aspects of my life. So much so that in the end, I got fired from two of the three part-time jobs that I worked to support myself, I got kicked out of the apartment where I lived, and finally I was kicked out of college again. With nowhere else to go I returned to my father’s house feeling like a failure. My father would confirm that fact and humiliate me. Through my life’s experience and through Bible study, which was beginning to take root, I realized that I had to a change. What I was doing was not working and that’s when Jesus really came into my heart. I decided to try to get back into school and try one last time. I appealed to the dean, I wrote a letter and begged to be reinstated. By the grace of God, they let me back in. I got a new job, and a new apartment by myself this time and I concentrated on school and Bible study. God helped me to do well and I got off of probation. I remember during my Genesis study, I made a vow similar to Jacob’s, I said, “God, if you help me to graduate, get a job, and establish a family, then you will be my god.” I am still amazed that I could be so bold and make a vow like that. Who was I that God should listen to me. But amazingly God did listen, and he acted. I was able to finally graduate but my GPA was not good, I had done a lot of damage in my early years and even though I got good grades later on, it could reverse the damage. You have to live with the consequences of your sin. And this worried me because I needed a job after graduation and on the news, they said the economy was the worst it has been in the last ten years. And I had several classmates, who were much better students than I was, that graduated the year before and still didn’t have jobs at the time of my graduation, so I was worried that I wouldn’t get a job. However much to my surprise, a friend told me about an opening in his company. And amazingly I got this job and had it waiting for me right after graduation. Then a little while later I got married to Julia my precious wife, who is exactly what I need. She is the perfect complement to me, where I am weak, she is strong. Then God blessed our family with four beautiful children.

So why am I telling you about my story, what’s the point. Well, over the course of time, I remembered the vow I made before God, and I was amazed at how God fulfilled his part even though I hadn’t been completely faithful to him. All that time God had my back and was faithful to me even in spite of my unfaithfulness to him even after I had screwed my life up and for the first time I could see who God is and I realized what an awesome God we have. I made a decision to honor God as my god and give my life to him. Now you may say, “That’s good for you, but my life is different.” Or maybe you’re in the middle of your difficulties, your “Babylonian Exile” and it’s hard to express joy. If you are in the midst of hardship, I would say that it’s maybe even unnatural, weird to express joy during hardship. However, that’s not the point that Isaiah is making. Isaiah’s point is that in the midst of hardship, we should have hope and see that our suffering is not permeant but temporary. And even though we might feel like God has given up on us and rejected us, in reality he is not done with us. In fact, he loves us and wants to redeem and restore us to be whole with his unfailing love. To give us life to the full. So even though our situation is hard, we can look forward to when he will rescue us and that should give us joy instead of feeling abandoned and lost. Just like the Israelites crossed the Red Sea who went through difficulty to eventually reach the Promised Land.

However I still think that we lack something in our expression of joy. When I experienced God’s amazing love for me through Jesus, I am sooo thankful. But my thanksgiving is usually inward. I am not a very outgoing person. I am usually shy and quite content to sit quietly by myself. But Isaiah says we should sing, sing sing, burst into song, shout for joy but I say, I’m too shy. I can’t do that. However, this made me remember of a time when I did jump and shout for joy. Do you know what it was? And in fact, I know almost exactly, day, date, and time. It happened February 4th, 2007 at roughly 5:25 or 5:26pm. Do you know how I know that? Because it happened when the Chicago Bears took the opening kickoff for a touchdown in the Super bowl in 2006. I remember that I jumped off of my parent’s couch shouting and celebrating. I didn’t even think about it, I just reacted. Why could I do it then and not for God? I realize that I have been holding back my joy for God.

But Isaiah tells me to sing, sing sing, shout for joy. When we experience God for who he is and what he has done for us, we can’t help but sing with joy and celebrate, leaving behind our moaning, groaning, sighing, and complaints. I can only thank God for his unfailing love for me that he has poured out upon my life over and over and over. When we truly taste God’s wonderful grace we can ululate because of God’s unfailing love.

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