As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. Isaiah 55.10-11.
The “word of God” is surely one of the most frequently-used expressions in all of Christian conversation and literature. It is never very long before it is introduced into any discussion about mission or evangelism or worship or spirituality. But this morning, as I read this passage in Isaiah, I found myself asking: “But what exactly do we mean by ‘the Word of God’?”
I know what my words are. They are an expression of my thoughts – the means by which I communicate those thoughts to others in what I speak or write. And that much is, of course, true of the Word of God also. In Genesis 15.1 we are told that “the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward;’” and in that word, God communicated to Abram his thoughts and purposes concerning him.
Abram heard God’s word on other occasions too, as did Moses and the prophets. Indeed, in the Old Testament, the expression “the word of the Lord” occurs over 400 times and more than 50 of those occurrences are in the book of the prophet Jeremiah alone. But these verses in Isaiah caution us against the belief that when God speaks it is “merely” communication of his thoughts that is taking place. Isaiah seems to be asserting that, when God speaks, something far more dynamic is happening.
The image he uses is one of precipitation. The rain or snow descends upon the parched dead earth and it turns green with life and bursts into colour as flowers bloom. The flowers wither and seed pods form. They ripen and seeds fall into the earth and lies there, awaiting the next rain or snowfall that will in turn bring them to life. Meanwhile the water that had fallen from the sky has evaporated in the sun and returned to the heavens; its present work accomplished. “And that is just like the word of God,” says Isaiah. “It is never ineffective. It always achieves what God intends it to achieve.” And just what is that exactly?
According to Isaiah, it is the bringing of life.
That was what happened when God spoke at the dawn of time (Genesis 1) and it happened again when Jesus was conceived. Indeed, his conception by a young woman who was a virgin is presented to us as an actual example of how the word of God inevitably brings life however hopeless the circumstances. We are used to hearing Gabriel’s response to Mary’s “How can this be?” as “For with God nothing shall be impossible” (Luke 1.37 KJV), but Gabriel’s words as they appear in the most reliable Greek manuscripts are, “For no word from God will ever fail” (NIV, NEB etc).
Jesus himself is, of course, the Word who became flesh and lived among us (John 1.14) and his avowed purpose in coming was precisely that we might have life (John 10.10).
In short, the word of God is a life-bringing, life-giving force that, once released, cannot (according to Isaiah) be thwarted in its purpose. Paul calls it “the word of life” (Philippians 2.16) which is the name John gives to Jesus himself (1 John 1.1). It is like a guided missile that, once locked on to its target, will inevitably strike it. But God’s word is a life missile, launched in love, and it will always bring about, not the destruction of its target, but its rescue and salvation.
Isn’t that encouraging? Shouldn’t it cause us to pray with renewed vigour that, this day, God will “speak” through us – through our words as we write emails, blog, make and answer phone calls, chat and pass the time of day; through our actions; through our attitudes (see my recent post “Fruit with Seed in it”); through everything we are. For we are assured that, if he does, the word of the Lord that is thus conveyed in our lives will inevitably bring life to others. It cannot do otherwise, says Isaiah; for if it is the word of the Lord and it simply cannot fail.