Fear, Part Two

Isaiah 41:10 and Jeremiah 29:11

By Kersley Fitzgerald

...fear not, for I am with you;
    be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
     I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
Isaiah 41:10

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Jeremiah 29:11
Isaiah 41:10 is a pretty common "fear not" verse. Like Joshua 1:9, the reason given is that God will take care of things. In this case, specifically, He will provide strength and support.

Fear — The word yare' is not quite the same as in Joshua 1:9. It doesn't imply terror so much as awe, reverence, dread, and astonishment. In this case, it applies to enemies. The audience was to show neither revere nor dread their enemies.

Dismayed — The KJV and the ESV say "be not dismayed," but the NASB uses the more literal "do not anxiously look about you." Sha'ah primarily means to look at or regard, but in context can mean to gaze about in anxiety. Like a squirrel who doesn't know where the dog is.

Strengthen — This is the same Hebrew word, 'amats as "courageous" in Joshua 1:9. But where Joshua was to choose to be courageous, here, God is promising He will provide the strength.

Uphold — The Hebrew Tamak means to grasp, support, keep, seize. It's a secure grip in the midst of the storm.

Righteous — The verse is all about God's protection, so the addition of this word is kind of interesting. God describes His right hand (a symbol of strength) as tsedeq — just and morally right. His actions are not only beneficial, they are also just.

But who will these actions benefit? This passage was written during the reign of Hezekiah, a good king of Judah, apparently not too long after he foolishly showed Babylonian envoys the wealth of Jerusalem. God then told him (through Isaiah) that all his riches will be taken to Babylon and some of his sons will be made eunuchs to serve the Babylonian king. Hezekiah responds that the judgment is acceptable since it won't happen until after he's gone (Isaiah 39:1-8).

Isaiah 40 and 41 go on to encourage the people in preparation for their coming exile. Isaiah 41:1-20 starts with a description of God's power and sovereignty over nations, how He allows some to rise up and others to disappear like dust. In the wake of His power, people try to encourage each other to stand strong and have courage.

"But you, Israel, my servant...fear not, for I am with you..." (Isaiah 41:8a, 10a). Israel did not have to rely on idols forged and formed with hammer and anvil. They did not have to reinforce their gods with nails (Isaiah 41:7). God is with them even when their enemies defeat them.

God chose them (Isaiah 41:9), strengthens and upholds them (Isaiah 41:10), holds their right hand (Isaiah 41:13), helps them (Isaiah 41:14), arms them (Isaiah 41:15), makes them conquerors (Isaiah 41:16), and provides water in dry places (Isaiah 41:17-18).

As for Israel's enemies, God makes them tremble (Isaiah 41:5), shames and confounds them (Isaiah 41:11), makes them nothing (Isaiah 41:12), and scatters them like chaff in the wind (Isaiah 41:15-16).

Why does God do this? As part of His plan to show the world that He is God and idols are nothing (Isaiah 41:21-29). That was why God promised Israel He would be with them — because He knew the persecution they were going to face at the hands of their enemies would one day cause them to return to Him and worship Him alone. Then He would strike. Then the Israelites would live without fear — God would raise the Israelites up as He destroyed those who He had used to crush them.

Isaiah was written during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah (Isaiah 1:1), around 787-697 B.C. Although Hezekiah was a pretty good king, his son brought in so much idolatry that God allowed him to be the first king of Judah to be captured and taken to Babylon. Jeremiah was written later, during the reigns of Josiah, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah, and into the Babylonian captivity (623-586 B.C.). His message was one of hope. Exile was inevitable at this point, but the people would return and the Israelites would reclaim Jerusalem. Chapter 29 was written to the exiles in Babylon after Jehoiachin had been taken and his kinsman Zedekiah installed as king. It was Zedekiah who rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar so badly that his sons were killed in front of him. He was then blinded and taken in chains to Babylon. He was replaced by the governor Gedaliah who was assassinated right before the last of the residents of Judah fled to Egypt.*

So, Jeremiah's spot was bad and getting worse. In addition to speaking unwanted truth about Judah's future, he was constantly being tortured (Jeremiah 20:2) or thrown in wells (Jeremiah 38). Still, he was faithful to God's commission of speaking both judgment and hope. In Jeremiah 29, he passes on God's instructions to the Israelites living in Babylon to settle down, build homes and gardens, get married and have kids — and even pray for the welfare of their temporary city. This exile would last for seventy years, and then God would bring them back to Jerusalem.

It's at this point that Jeremiah 29:11 comes in: "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope."

Plans — The Hebrew machashabah does mean plan, but the word also means thought and invention. So God's plans are not haphazard. He has thought things through and makes His choices very deliberately.

Welfare — This is the word shalom. It means completeness, safety, health, and prosperity. But more importantly, it means peace and friendship with God.

Future — This word doesn't just mean later; it means at the end. 'Achariyth refers to the end, posterity, the last, or the future in a prophecy. It implies a long, patient wait.

Hope — The KJV is more literal here, combining tiqvah with 'achariyth as "expected end." Another translation of tiqvah is cord or line, as if following a pre-determined path to reach the end.

But whose path?

If Jeremiah 29:1 hadn't been so specific in noting this prophecy was addressed to "the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon," the context would be nearly as obvious. Jeremiah 29:11 is for the Israelites in exile in Babylon a long time ago. It is not directed at us in the church age.

And it doesn't comprise the whole of the promise. Jeremiah 29:12-14 goes on to say that God will restore their relationship with Him, as well as their fortunes, and bring them back to the Promised Land from all their places of exile. But it is an "expected end." It will not happen immediately. Jeremiah had to deal with several false prophets who insisted the exiles would return soon and everything would bbe put to rights. These false prophets will come to a very unpleasant end.

It could be that this is a double-prophecy. That it applied to the time of Hezekiah and Ezra when the exiles returned, to the 1940s when the Jews returned to Israel, and the Millennial Kingdom when the Abrahamic Covenant will be completely fulfilled. What it does not apply to is the 21st century church. Not least because we have not been lost in Babylon for seventy years (Jeremiah 29:10).

That doesn't mean that God excluded us — in His comfort or His plans. It just means that the prophecies and admonitions in the Old Testament need to be taken into context. We have a great deal to learn from Israel's stories, but we are not Israel.

Published 1-25-16