The children of your bereavement will yet say in your ears: 'The place is too narrow for me; make room for me to dwell in.' ~Isaiah 49:20Rather than diving right into verse one of Isaiah 54, I want to first introduce you to a barren woman named Hannah whose story we find in the opening chapter of 1 Samuel.
To be barren is sad and disheartening (I don't wish to diminish that), but in Hannah's time it was more than that. A woman's personal worth was in many ways tied directly to her children. One of God's promises of blessing was children, therefore if one didn't have children it was seen as God withholding His blessing. Women who were barren were looked down upon, seen as second rate. Although Hannah had a husband who loved her dearly and didn't see her as such, her deep gnawing ache for a child couldn't be remedied by him. Scholars assume that due to Hannah's barrenness, Elkanah, her husband, took a second wife, Peninnah, who provoked and taunted Hannah. With Peninnah, Elkanah had many children to continue the family line. You'd think that suffering under people's condescending looks and whispers and having your husband's other wife torment you nonstop would be hard, but I have to wonder about the effect this had on Hannah's relationship with God. That had to have been her biggest "battle." After all, God had ordained Hannah to remain barren. Did she not wonder why? Did she not have to fight off the lies that can so easily flood the mind, infect and sting the heart? Does God really love me? Does God really care about me? Does He even see me? Is He not aware of what my life is like?
Feelings of disgrace, shame, humiliation, and distress had a sense of familiarity to Hannah. Four synonyms we can associate with barrenness. As such, barrenness brings with it a stigma of un-fruitfulness for women like Hannah.
In Isaiah 54 we see this same theme of barrenness. To give a little background here, at this time, the nation of Israel had gone into exile and was being held captive by Babylon. This created a whole slew of issues, one of which was humiliation and shame because here they were, God's chosen people, in exile (which, just to note, was due to their disobedience, and being held captive by the Babylonians was absolutely not a walk in the park... at all). But it's here, 54 chapters in, that we see God addressing Israel's shame, distress... their barrenness... their feelings of being completely empty, unfruitful... and the lies (in all likelihood similar ones Hannah wrestled with) evading their hearts and minds:
Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married," says the Lord. (vs. 1)
I don't know about you, but my first reaction while I'm walking through a barren spiritual season is not to get up and start belting out hymns or praise songs...
Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your offspring will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities. (vs. 2&3)
Here we see God basically saying, "I know you feel desolate and barren. I know that you have no fruitfulness in your lives. I know you have faced many difficulties and much pain under the Babylonians. I know you're doubtful... that your expectations and hope no longer remain, but all this is coming to an end soon. So cry out! Rejoice! Enlarge your tents! Hold nothing back in your hope and expectations in me! Lengthen the cords... strengthen the stakes! Make room for more of Me... for more of the "children" I'm going to bless you with!"
The theme of these verses is one of positioning yourself for that season of fruitfulness, so that when it comes you can enjoy it with even greater joy. We're not to wait until "inpregnantion occurs" before we start preparing. No, we begin preparation for fruitfulness now. Or as one commentator put it, "start the home remodeling" (Isiah 49:19 and 20)! Before a harvest is to be gathered, the soil must be worked, and seeds must be planted. Before children are labored and birthed, there's conception and months of slow growth.
Fear not, for you will not be ashamed; be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more. (vs. 4)
As God's dearly loved children, we're not to live in fear of more shame and reproach (i.e. widowhood, stigma #2 in this passage). You and I are to confidently expect God to be moving in our lives.... and that He is always at work in and through them, even when we don't see any evidence at the moment. He hasn't forgotten you. He is promising restoration to our "emotional wreckage" and fruitfulness, not ever-continuous barrenness, so that in time, we too will eventually echo Hannah's song of praise in singing "those who were hungry have ceased to hunger. The barren has borne seven" (1Sam 2:5). Seven is the number of perfection of completeness in the Bible. Hannah did indeed go on to have a son (and other children). God heard her cries, pleas, and prayers. He answered them in an even grander way than probably she ever expected, because her child, Samuel, would eventually become one of the major prophets and priests in the Old Testament
The wonderful truth of these first four verses: God uses our barrenness as the platform for something greater to be conceived and birthed by His supernatural power, for His glory and our ultimate joy. Should God be withholding or preventing in allowing us to bear fruit now, we should incline our hearts to believe that it's in order to make us exceedingly more fruitful in the future. The state of barrenness is not permanent, but preparatory.
We cannot create or grow fruit on our own, because it's the work of God. But during those times of preparation we're not to hold back our cries. We're to keep rejoicing, keep singing, and keep positioning our hearts for good fruit. Christ is always at work in our lives, even in the season of waiting and "impregnation." He has not forgotten us, and as verse four shows us, whatever our past may have been, in light of all that Christ has done for us, it cannot keep us from God's blessing, His goodness, or His love.
What is my barrenness? It is the platform for his fruit-creating power. What is my desolation? It is the black setting for the sapphire of his everlasting love. I will go in poverty, I will go in helplessness, I will go in all my shame... I will tell him that I am still his child, and in confidence in his faithful heart, even I, the barren one, will sing and cry aloud... The experience of our barrenness is painful, but the Lord's visitations are delightful. A sense of our own poverty drives us to Christ, and that is where we need to be, for in him is our fruit found. ~Charles H. Spurgeon
*In the next post we'll look at the more practical side of these first four verses. In the meantime, here are the basic ideas and themes to think/ponder over...
- Israel had felt like they had been labeled with three "stigmas," two of which are introduced here at the beginning: widowhood (feelings of being left alone) and barrenness (feelings of emptiness).
- God tells Israel to cry out to Him again... to not let their shame hinder them from coming near to Him and expecting Him to keep to His covenant He made with them.
- In seasons of waiting and barrenness we're to position ourselves for fruitfulness, as barrenness is merely a platform for greater things.
- Through barrenness God's glory can and will be seen all the more!
- Gal. 4:27
- 1Sam. 2:5
- Isaiah 62:4
- Isaiah 49:19&20