Back in the 1970’s a psychologist by the name of Walter Mischel at Stanford University conducted a series of experiments on the unique subject of delayed gratification. Mischel arranged for a group of children to participate in the experiment in order to demonstrate the power of instant gratification and its ongoing influence into adulthood. He brought the children into a room one at a time and offered him or her a choice. The child could have a marshmallow now or wait 15 minutes and get two marshmallows. Some children were able to resist for the full 15 minutes, but many could not. Instant gratification kept some children from receiving something better, because the immediate pleasure of one marshmallow was more appealing than the delayed pleasure of two. Further studies of what would later become known as the Marshmallow Experiment confirmed that those children who opted for instant gratification seemed to have less success later in the life compared to those who chose delayed gratification. That’s because instant gratification is not just an adolescent trait; it plagues adults too.
And not much is different among Christians either. Many Christians apply promises they read in the Bible to the present without realizing the promise actually refers to something far better in the future. A classic example of this is Jeremiah 29:11, “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.” It is perhaps the most popular verse in the modern Christian era, because it is interpreted as a blank check of divine blessing on our present lives. This is why you see the verse decorating so many graduation cards, because people want Jeremiah 29:11 to be an instrument of instant gratification when it is, in fact, delayed gratification. Jeremiah 29:11 describes a point in the distant future when all Israel will repent and the world will be restored (Jer 29:12–13; cf. Deut 30:1–6; 1 Kgs 8:48–50; Dan 9). The plans God has for His people are not for financial welfare, a successful future at a new job, or even the hope of a restored marriage. His plans are for a much longer welfare, better future, and brighter hope in heaven made possible by His Son. That’s the real message of Jeremiah 29:11. It offers better hope in the form of delayed gratification, not instant.
But Jeremiah 29:11 is not the only verse repackaged by Christians for instant gratification. There is another well known verse that is treated the same way: Isaiah 40:31, “But they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” While Jeremiah 29:11 is famous for its association with graduations, Isaiah 40:31 is celebrated for its association with gymnasiums, of all things, because of its inspirational charm. Its picture of strength and speed offers Christians promising motivation for a successful workout: “By God’s help, I will mount up with wings like an eagle. I will run and never grow weary. I will walk and never faint.” That’s a nice sentiment, but once again it is flawed in the same vein as Jeremiah 29:11. Its appeal for instant gratification ignores the real meaning of delayed gratification. Isaiah 40:31 is not promising strength for today, but rather strength for tomorrow. Like Jeremiah 29:11, Isaiah 40:31 is looking to the end of time when God will rescue His people from the suffering of this world and oppression of their enemies. Still, many Christians seem content to use Isaiah 40:31 as motivation for some immediate task at hand expecting God to energize them with supernatural or spiritual strength. But I want to challenge you think differently. I ask you to put aside the temptation for instant gratification for a moment and consider delayed gratification. I dare you to think bigger, because God’s plans are bigger. As Tom Hardy’s character in the movie Inception encouraged, “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.” Isaiah 40:31 is way bigger than getting strength for your next workout.
But how do we know Isaiah 40:31 is talking about something bigger, like the victorious culmination of history, and is not some kind of motivational figure of speech? I want to submit two main reasons.
1. THERE IS CLEAR EVIDENCE SURROUNDING ISAIAH 40:31
First, there is clear evidence surrounding Isaiah 40:31. The first 39 chapters of Isaiah deals with God’s judgment against Israel for her sin. But it also mentions that God will rescue and restore Israel by judging the nations. God promises salvation. There’s no question about it. But now the big question becomes, “HOW will God save His people?” Isaiah 40 marks the transition into the last half of the book that explains just how He plans to do it. God will save with His unlimited power. Isaiah 40:10 summarizes the theme of the chapter, “Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him.” It is by God’s strength alone that Israel will be delivered.
But will this deliverance come in the near future or in the distant future? At first glance, the answer seems unclear, because throughout the book Isaiah pictures two events where God delivers His people. One comes in the near future a few hundred years after Isaiah was written when Israel will be rescued temporarily. For example, Isaiah 10:24–27 encourages Israel not to be afraid of the Assyrians who are about to drag them off into exile, because God will destroy them and bring His people home. Is that what Isaiah 40:31 is referring to? It certainly is possible. But there is another time in Isaiah picturing the distant future where God will rescue His people permanently. Isaiah 11 moves on from the immediate fate of the nation to the far. It portrays the Messiah bringing justice to the whole world (vv. 1–5) and setting up a kingdom with unprecedented peace (vv. 6–9). Lions will live in harmony with cows and little kids will be able to treat them both like pets (v. 6b). Never before—with the lone exception of the Garden of Eden—has the world seen such peace where even children can play with the most dangerous animals and not be harmed. This illustrates a time that has not yet come. But it is at this time that Israel will return from a second exile, “In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that remains of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Cush, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea” (Isa 11:11). This verse makes a clear distinction between the events of chapter 10 and the events of chapter 11. There are two exiles, because God is extending His hand a “second time.” Israel may have returned from exile 2,500 years ago, but based on the clear language of verse 11 and the conditions catalogued in the prior 10 verses this cannot refer to the same event in Isaiah 10:24–27. Isaiah 11 is envisioning a separate, future event at the end of time itself.
So which one does Isaiah 40:31 refer to? An event in the near future or the distant? I submit that it is alluding to the distant future, a time when history will reach its climax. In the video, I mentioned three characteristics of the event described in Isaiah 40:31. Each characteristic is located in the uninterrupted text of Isaiah 40 and following, supporting the claim that Isaiah 40:31 is depicting an end times phenomenon.
First, the scope will be global, not local. Isaiah 42:1 says, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” The grammar of this verse is important. Isaiah prophesies that the Servant will bring forth justice to the nations, plural, not singular. Assyria took the Northern Kingdom of Israel captive. But it is just one nation. Babylon took the Southern Kingdom of Israel captive. But it too is just one nation. God’s campaigns on Israel’s behalf have always been local, one nation at a time. But Isaiah 40:31 is nestled in a text that pictures a global war.
Second, the plagues will be lethal, not just harmful. This will be covered in more detail below, but God promises to rescue His people from the nations with plagues. This should bring to mind the story of the exodus when God also sent plagues against Egypt to deliver His people from its grasp. At that time, the plagues were devastating, but not completely lethal. That is not to say people didn’t die. For example, the plague of flaming hail killed whatever human or animal was in the field (Ex 9:25) and the final plague killed every Egyptian firstborn (Ex 12:29). But most Egyptians survived the plagues. However, God’s global judgment discussed in the text surrounding Isaiah 40:31—which I will later demonstrate are plagues just like those during the exodus—are thoroughly lethal. Isaiah 41:11–12 promises, “Behold, all who are incensed against you shall be put to shame and confounded; those who strive against you shall be as nothing and shall perish. You shall seek those who contend with you, but you shall not find them; those who war against you shall be as nothing at all.” This hardly can apply to Israel exiled in Assyria and Babylon, because Israel has never faced a moment in her history when ALL WHO ARE INCENSED AGAINST HER have perished.
Third, the victory will be eternal, not temporal. Ever since Israel returned from the Assyrian and Babylonian exile, she has been at war. Whether it was Rome 2,000 years ago or Syria today, Israel has been in a perpetual state of conflict. But Isaiah 40:2 claims that a time will come when her warfare will end, “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended.” No more war. No more conflict. This is a return from exile of a different sort. What was once temporal and deficient will finally be eternal and sufficient.
Isaiah 40:31 is sandwiched in the middle of these descriptions. Those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength, because the end has come and every wonderful promise will be fulfilled. Isaiah 40:31 anticipates a much grander moment than even the joyful return from exile a couple thousand years ago. It is a homecoming that will never end.
2. THERE IS CLEAR EXODUS LANGUAGE IN ISAIAH 40:31
Second, there is clear “exodus” language in Isaiah 40:31. In the video I point out an association in imagery between Isaiah 40:31 and Exodus 19:4, “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” Isaiah 40:31 is not the only verse in the Bible that mentions eagles, but the imagery of an eagle applied to a person or a whole nation is quite rare. The connection then is intentional. It is a reference to Israel’s national identity. They are a people rescued on the back of God’s wings. The United States of America is not the only nation in human history to adopt the eagle as its national animal. Israel was first. Like the U.S., the eagle symbolized freedom for Israel. But unlike the U.S., God designed the eagle to be a picture of His uniquely powerful deliverance for Israel. It represents divine redemption on a grand scale. Therefore, Isaiah 40:31 is a promise that an event comparable to the exodus will happen again, an event I have dubbed the new exodus. And as we already discovered, this event will eclipse the magnitude of the exodus plagues.
But exactly how does Isaiah 40:31 predict this will happen? Are there any indications in the text that tell us what will happen? Isaiah 40:31 itself is mute on the subject. It just tells us that it will happen. But later revelation fills in many of the details. The book of Revelation describes the new exodus of Isaiah 40:31 in similar terms to the old exodus. But before it defines the nature of this new exodus, Revelation links arms with Isaiah 40:31 by mentioning the imagery of the eagle, “Then I looked, and I heard an eagle crying with a loud voice as it flew directly overhead, “Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth, at the blasts of the other trumpets that the three angels are about to blow!” (Rev 8:13). Revelation 8:13 brings Isaiah 40:31 to mind to connect what is about to happen to the promise of a new exodus in Isaiah. In other words, the events of Revelation are the new exodus and the world’s judgment is Israel’s salvation. Revelation then links arms with Exodus by reintroducing many of the plagues leveled against Egypt. It uses technical terms to categorize these plagues, such as seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments, but the book still labels them as plagues from time to time (Rev 9:18, 20; 11:6; 15:1, 6, 8; 16:9, 21; 18:4, 8; 21:9; 22:18). There are several plagues in Exodus that never happen in Revelation, but there are still many that carry over, albeit with greater intensity. There are at least six crossovers of plagues between the two books: (1) Locusts (Ex 10:12–15; Rev 9:1–11, (2) boils (Ex 9:9–11; Rev 16:2), (3) water to blood (Ex 7:14–24; Rev 16:3), (4) darkness (Ex 10:21–23; Rev 16:10), (5) frogs (Ex 8:1–7; Rev 16:13), and (6) hail stones (Rev 16:21; Ex 9:13–26). For the sake of space I want to look at only three of them.
THE PLAGUE OF WATER TURNED TO BLOOD
One of the most familiar plagues is when God turned the Nile River into blood. Exodus 7:14–24 recounts the story how Moses struck the Nile River with his staff and turned it all to blood. It killed every living creature in the river and produced a foul odor that made it impossible to drink. God pestered Egypt by taking their largest source of water and converting it into a disgusting, smelly, obnoxious waste dump. But the plague was more inconvenient than a complete disaster. Egypt had other sources for water and according to verse 24 they were able to dig around the Nile for clean water. However, the new version of this plague in Revelation is far more cataclysmic, “The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing died that was in the sea. The third angel poured out his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood” (Rev 16:3–4). Every natural source of water on the planet is gone in an instant. There is nothing for the world to drink except blood. Revelation recognizes how fitting this plague is by pointing out the just irony of the situation, “Just are you, O Holy One . . . For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!” (vv. 5a, 6). In the new exodus God heightens the severity of this plague to bring justice to the whole world, so that His people will experience a full and complete deliverance.
THE PLAGUE OF LOCUSTS
Exodus 10:12–15 pictures a swarm of locusts covering the land of Egypt. These insects devoured nearly every edible plant in the area, effectively starving the nation. It was a catastrophic event, but Egypt managed to survive on whatever reserves they had or perhaps even the locust themselves. There is a similar locust plague in Revelation, but it has an entirely different effect. God orders a swarm of locusts to escape from a bottomless pit and invade the planet. But these locusts are not targeting plants. Revelation 9:4 says, “They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.” These are a breed of locusts with just one job: To torture humanity. Verse 5 says, “They were allowed to torment them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone.” Moreover, these locusts are not described as little plant-eating insects, “In appearance the locusts were like horses prepared for battle: on their heads were what looked like crowns of gold; their faces were like human faces, their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth; they had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the noise of their wings was like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle. They have tails and stings like scorpions, and their power to hurt people for five months is in their tails” (Rev 9:7–10). Like something out of a horror film, creatures unlike the world has ever seen will inflict the maximum amount of pain on humanity for five straight months. The similarity between the two plagues is undeniable. But the difference is equally striking.
THE PLAGUE OF HAIL STONES
The one plague I chose to illustrate in the video was the plague of hail stones. It was easy enough to depict and clearly communicated the similarities between the old and new exodus. Exodus 9:24 describes hail falling from the sky with flashes of fire, and if anyone was out in the open when this happened, they were struck with the hail and died (v. 25). The hailstorm was merciless to anyone who found themselves outside, but it was easily avoided by staying indoors. Yet, as expected, the hailstorm in Revelation ups the ante. Hail actually appears a few times throughout Revelation with subtle variation. It first shows up when an angel blows the first trumpet signaling a downpour of hail and fire. But God adds a special touch this time around: He mixes the hail and fire with blood. This new dimension suggests God has a more lethal intent than the original hail plague of the exodus. God wanted to cripple Egypt in the exodus. But now God intends to wipe wicked humanity off the face of the earth. The flaming hail ends up burning up one-third of the earth and acts as a down payment of more to come. The hailstorm shows up again in Revelation 16:21, “And great hailstones, about one hundred pounds each, fell from heaven on people; and they cursed God for the plague of the hail, because the plague was so severe.” Hailstones never get to be more than two pounds, but the hail of the final bowl judgment will be 50 times heavier and make it far more difficult to hide from.
Isaiah 40:31 forecasts a brand new exodus in the distant future. It will be comparable to the old exodus, but every plague will be far more severe. It will also widen its scope to include the entire world in order to ensure an everlasting victory for all of God’s people. All of this is communicated with one simple metaphor: The eagle.
SO HOW DOES THIS APPLY TO ME?
Isaiah 40:31 is about delayed gratification, not instant. It offers a much bigger reward, but asks you in turn to wait for the Lord. Many people in the Old Testament patiently waited for this moment knowing full well they would never see it in their lifetimes. Hebrews 11 even catalogues a list of biblical characters who waited for the new exodus. People like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Moses, and Rahab were not waiting for God to act here and now. They waited for something they knew would happen long after they were gone. Hebrews 11:13 summarizes the patient nature of their faith well, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” (Heb 11:13).
I’m afraid Christians today are more focused on the “land from which they had gone out” (i.e., this life) more than the “better, heavenly country” (i.e., the new heavens and new earth of the new exodus), and they manipulate Isaiah 40:31 to fit this sentiment. But God calls us in Isaiah 40:31 to wait for the Lord. Those in the Old Testament did and He came. Now the New Testament asks us to wait again and He will come again, “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!” (2 Pet 3:11–12). Our job is not to wait for God to do something spectacular with our lives today (e.g., a good job, car, marriage, kids, success, etc.), even though He could and still might, but to live with holy poise as we wait for His new exodus to bring us home, “Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace” (2 Pet 3:14).