Isaiah 49 reveals the very heart of God, perhaps unlike any other passage. For most if not all people — whether a Christian or a non-believer — our biggest problem is that we do not believe that God really loves us. That easily leads to a kind of spiritual despondency. But when we feel forgotten or forsaken, our hope and our confidence can be found in remembering who God is, what he's done, and what he's promised to do. Watch our sermon to learn more about the remedy to spiritual depression.

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    Last weekend, my wife, Ashley, and I decided to introduce our children to the 1984 film “The Never Ending Story,” and let's just say, it did not go over very well. They were not impressed. Apparently, the special effects of 40 years ago leave more than a little to be desired. They had no interest in finishing the movie. Later, I realized that even if this is a terrible film, it provides a great illustration. The story centers on a boy named Bastian who one day runs away from a group of bullies, and he hides in a bookshop, where he discovers a book entitled “The Neverending Story.” Unable to resist, he steals the book, and then he hides in the attic of his school, and he begins to read this story, and as he does, he becomes increasingly disturbed by the fact that the characters in the story are somehow aware of him. They can hear him. At points they can see him, and then finally, it slowly dawns on him that he is a part of the story. 

    That, of course, is just a fantasy, but what I want you to realize is that was Jesus' experience when Jesus read the book of Isaiah. Over two and a half millennia ago, a man named Isaiah stood in the temple in Jerusalem and heard God calling him to become a prophet, and what a prophet did he become. It all took place, according to Isaiah in the year 740 BC, the year that King Uzziah died. Many people consider Isaiah to be the fifth gospel alongside of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John because even though it was written 800 years before the Gospels of the New Testament, Isaiah weaves together all the threads of God's purposes for his people and for the wider world. As a result, the New Testament quotes Isaiah at least 66 times, more than all the other prophets in the Bible combined. 

    So 800 years after writing his book, Jesus studies Isaiah, memorizes Isaiah, loves Isaiah. He looks down through the long centuries to learn from Isaiah. But what's more is he discovers that Isaiah was looking ahead to him. As Jesus poured over the Book of Isaiah, he knew that it was all about him. 

    Jesus grew in his understanding of his own identity, calling, vocation, and mission in light of the Book of Isaiah and so can we. During this season of Lent, as we prepare for the events that we’ll remember on Good Friday and celebrate on Easter, we're going to examine Jesus Through Isaiah’s Eyes. We'll take a look at how Isaiah portrays Jesus who is to come. Today we turn to Isaiah 49, which reveals the very heart of God, perhaps more than any other passage in the Bible. This is one of my all time favorites. I would suggest that for most people, perhaps everyone, and it doesn't matter whether you're a Christian yet or not, even if you are a Christian, I believe that our biggest problem is that we don't believe that God loves us. Not really. We don't really believe that God loves us. That is our biggest problem. And that is true, even if, perhaps especially if, you've heard it all before. That's what can very easily lead to a kind of spiritual depression. If you've ever experienced spiritual despondency, here is your answer. As we turn to Isaiah 49 today, I'd like us to consider the 1) cause of spiritual depression and 2) its cure

    13Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;

        break forth, O mountains, into singing!

    For the Lord has comforted his people

        and will have compassion on his afflicted.

    14But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me;

        my Lord has forgotten me.”

    15“Can a woman forget her nursing child,

        that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?

    Even these may forget,

        yet I will not forget you.

    16Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;

        your walls are continually before me.”

    The Cause Of Spiritual Depression

    We'll begin by considering the cause of spiritual depression, but let me start with a little background for context. Last week, Andrew Smith introduced us to the character of the Lord's servant in Isaiah 42. On the one hand, the term servant is used in a general sense. In the Old Testament David, Moses, even Isaiah himself is referred to as God's servant. But in the latter chapters of the Book of Isaiah, Isaiah speaks of a very specific figure who is known as the servant. At first, we see in Isaiah 49, and elsewhere, that this servant is called Israel, which makes us think, of course, of the nation of Israel. But if you have your Bibles open to you, you'll see that in verse 5, Isaiah says that the Lord will send Israel to Israel, in order to draw his people back to himself, and that makes it obvious that Isaiah is speaking of Israel in two different senses. He can't send Israel to Israel to bring Israel back to himself, so there must be more going on here. In addition to that general sense of Israel as, the nation, he is also thinking of someone else, a specific person. That's what points us ahead to the New Testament. Jesus is the true servant. He's the ultimate Israel, who represents everything that the nation of Israel was meant to be. But more than that, Jesus takes up the vocation of Israel and does everything that Israel was meant to do to be a light to the nations. Isaiah will make it clear that Jesus, as the servant of the Lord, will suffer. He will suffer for the sake of his people, not because of his own sin, but because of the sins of others in order to draw back the Lord's people to himself and to restore and to renew the whole world. Jesus will be and do everything that Israel was meant to be and do. He's going to bless the world. You can read all about that in verses 1-12 here in Isaiah 49. We picked up the reading at verse 13, which provides the climax to God's promises here,

    “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;

     break forth, O mountains, into singing!

    For the Lord has comforted his people

     and will have compassion on his afflicted.”

    You would think that when people hear these promises and they hear this call to break out in a song, they would respond by saying, “Wow!” But instead they respond by saying, “Woe.” You would think that they would respond by saying, “Wow! This is amazing! Look at what God has promised! Look at what he's going to do!” But instead, they say, “Woe is me.” We expect Tigger, but we get Eeyore. We expect Tigger to be bouncing around with excitement, but instead we get Eeyore who is glum and doesn't see anything good in the promises that have just been spoken. Instead, we read in verse 14,

    “But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me;

     my Lord has forgotten me.’”

    Who is this text for? This passage is for people who feel down in the dumps, even if, perhaps especially if, you've heard good news, and that's all of us at one point or another. Of course, some of us by personality type or by temperament or by background, might experience a little spiritual despondency more often or more intensely than others do, but we all have times when we just can't be cheered up, no matter what might be said, no matter what the Lord might promise. 

    Someone might say to you, “Don't you know that you've been called by God, that you've been forgiven of all your sin, that you've been justified, declared righteous in God's eyes? Don't you know that God has adopted you into his family? He considers you his precious child, and he's already begun the sanctifying work to make you more like Jesus. He has promised to finish the work that he's begun in you. One day he's going to glorify you, so that you're going to shine like a star in the universe.” You respond by saying “Who cares? Look at my life. Look at what I'm going through. What difference does all that make to me now?” Sometimes we just can't be cheered. Have you ever felt that way? Do you feel that way right now? Then this passage is for you. 

    Who is Zion? Zion was originally the mountain upon which the temple was built. It was the mountain upon which Jerusalem was based, so Zion became shorthand, not only to refer to the mount of the Lord but to refer to the city of Jerusalem and, even more, to refer to God's people. Zion is God's people. Zion is you and me. Specifically here, Isaiah is peering forward into the future, and he's looking ahead to the time when Zion will be destroyed. The Babylonians are going to come in. They're going to lay waste to the city of Jerusalem. They're going to destroy the temple. They're going to tear down the walls, and they're going to take the people, God's people, away into captivity in Babylon because of their sin, because of their recalcitrance and stubbornness. But God encourages them here in Isaiah to say, “Despite all that's going to happen, I'm going to renew you. I'm going to restore you.” But Zion says, “Who cares? The Lord has forsaken me. The Lord has forgotten me.” 

    “Talk is cheap,” we might say. “Words mean nothing. Look at me. Look at my life. Everything's in ruins. Those are all just empty words. The truth is that the Lord has forsaken me. The Lord has forgotten me.” Forsaken and forgotten are two different words that are related but distinct. The great Old Testament commentator Alec Motyer said that we can think of forsaken and forgotten as out of sight and out of mind. Forsaken means out of sight. You feel abandoned, orphaned. Forgotten means out of mind. You feel that God doesn't think of you. He doesn't remember you. And what a sad state. We often do feel forsaken and forgotten, that we are out of sight and out of mind. God doesn't see. God doesn't care. If he did, we wouldn't be in the position that we're in right now. Maybe we feel forsaken or forgotten because of something we've done, because of our own deliberate fault, which makes the darkness only deeper because you feel like in some way you deserve it, that you've brought this upon yourself. But you have to remember that God speaks these words to Zion, to God's people after — not before — after they had fallen into sin, after he had known everything that they would do. 

    Years ago the Pastor Tim Keller once preached on this text, and he observed something intriguing about the human heart. There is something about the human heart that at times refuses to be cheered up. You could say to a human heart, “You’re trash. You're worthless. You're less than nothing.” Words like that will scar you for life. And yet, by contrast, you could say to a human heart, “You are loved. You are valuable. You are respected. You are honored.” Those words will lift you up, but that only lasts for five minutes. It's almost like negativity and criticism are a lockbox in the human heart. And yet, positivity and affirmation are like the morning mist, they evaporate. As soon as we hear those positive words of affirmation, we need to hear them again five minutes later. 

    What do we do with all this? In 1965, the British pastor David Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote a book entitled “Spiritual Depression” which was based on 21 sermons that he delivered on this theme, and I would commend that book to you. This isn't meant to be exhaustive. This isn't meant to be comprehensive. There's a lot more to spiritual depression than just this, but Lloyd-Jones suggested that one of the main causes of spiritual despondency is to allow our self to talk to us, rather than talking to our self. That might sound paradoxical or even silly, but what does he mean by that? This is what he writes.

    “I suggest that the main trouble in this whole matter of spiritual depression in a sense is this, that we allow our self to talk to us instead of talking to our self. Am I just trying to be deliberately paradoxical? Far from it. This is the very essence of wisdom in this matter. 

    Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them, but they start talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you.” 

    Then he lifts up the example of the psalmist in Psalm 42:5, who rather than just listening to self talk, talks to himself. The psalmist says,

    “Why are you cast down, O my soul,

    and why are you in turmoil within me?

    Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,

    my salvation and my God.”

    Lloyd-Jones goes on to say, 

    “[[Now this man’s treatment was this; instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul?’ he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says: ‘Self, listen for a moment, I will speak to you.’ Do you know what I mean? If you do not, you have had but little experience.]]

    The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’ – what business have you to be disquieted? 

    And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do. Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the whole world, and say with this man: ‘I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance, who is also the health of my countenance and my God.”

    The Cure For Spiritual Depression

    The cause of spiritual depression, at least one of them, is that we allow our self to talk to us rather than talking to ourselves. But if the cure is that we need to address ourselves, speak to ourselves, preach the gospel to ourselves, what are we supposed to say? Lloyd-Jones says that we need to remind ourselves of who God is and what God has done and what God has promised to do. That is exactly what God does for us in Isaiah 49. In response to this feeling that God has forsaken me and forgotten me, that I'm out of sight and I’m out of mind, God gives us three images to assure us of his love, that we are not forgotten, and we are not forsaken. I’ll spend a little more time on the first two, and I'll only say a very brief word at the end about the third image. 

    Nursing Mother

    The first image is that of a nursing mother. I know some of you are thinking, “I wonder how Jason is going to pull this one off?” And the answer is, very carefully. Some of you might secretly be praying for me, that's good. I'll take all the prayer I can get. One of the fundamental truths of the gospel is that God is love. God doesn't just have love. God doesn't just possess love. He doesn't just show love. God is love. But there's a full spectrum to love. If we were to shoot a white beam through a prism, that light would be split into the whole spectrum of color, and so it is with love. There's a full spectrum to the kinds of love that we experience. The Bible uses them all to describe God's love for us. Sometimes God's love is likened to the love of a father for a child. Sometimes it's likened to the love of a husband for a wife. Sometimes it's likened to the love of one friend giving up his life for another. But here God uses the image of a nursing mother to draw an analogy between that and his love for us. 

    It's important to see here that when God draws this analogy to a nursing mother, this is not sentimental. You'll see why in a minute. This is not sentimental. God is not saying, “There's no love like a mother's love.” That's not the point here. Let me show you. In verse 15, first God asks the question, “‘Can a woman forget her nursing child?’” On the one hand, the answer is no, and there are two reasons why. 


    For starters, it would be very hard for a nursing mother to forget her child, because if she goes too long without nursing, she's going to experience pain. Oftentimes, the older commentators on the Bible are better than the more recent ones. Here's an example. Matthew Henry was a Puritan who wrote a six-volume commentary on the whole Bible, the Old Testament and the New Testament, paragraph by paragraph in the 1710s. We tend to think of the Puritans as being a little prudish, straightlaced, but listen to how he comments on this one particular verse. He says,

    “A nursing mother, most of all, cannot but be tender of her child; her own breasts will soon put her in mind of it [her child] if she should forget it [her baby].”

    That's not what you would expect from a puritan, is it? How did he know all that? He had at least 10 children. We know that much. Even dads know that if a mother goes too long without nursing, she'll experience pain, perhaps even an infection. John Calvin too, another old commentator, says this, 

    “What amazing affection does a mother feel toward her offspring, which she cherishes in her bosom, and watches over with tender care so that she passes sleepless nights, wears herself out by continued anxiety, and forgets herself!”

    It's far more likely that a nursing mother would forget herself than forget her child. Far more likely that she would forget to take care of herself than to forget to take care of her baby. It would be hard for a nursing mother to forget her child because she’ll experience pain. 


    Then there's a second reason why it would be hard to forget her baby, and that's because not only will she experience pain, she will also experience joy. What the older commentators didn't know is that when a mother is nursing, nursing releases Oxytocin in the brain. Oxytocin is the hormone that not only releases the milk, but it also produces these deep feelings of love, attachment, and commitment. This is what causes a mother to bond with her baby, to feel like there's no other baby in the world like her own. That's why a nursing mother will often feel joy, calm, peace as if everything is right in the world when she's with her baby. This is powerful stuff. You might say, “How do you know that?” Not from firsthand experience, obviously. I didn't have 10 kids, but I do have four. What I do know is this: if a nursing mother sees her baby, or if a nursing mother feels her baby's skin on her own skin, if she hears her baby making noise, or a little cry, or if she even just looks at a photograph of her baby, that's enough, that will be enough to experience release. She'll feel a deep compulsion to want to nurse, to want to hold her baby, to want to love her baby, to want to commit herself to that baby. 

    When our first baby was born, he didn't sleep very well at night. Ashley and I would both get up in the middle of the night. She would nurse and then hand the baby off to me, and I would change his diaper and rock him to sleep. Because he slept so fitfully, we realized that both of us were exhausted, and Ashley realized it didn't really make sense for both of us to be sleep deprived, so we came up with a different strategy, which was that she would nurse the baby at night and then put him back to sleep, but because he was such an early riser, when he got up at 5 a.m., I would get up with Luke and take care of him so that she could sleep for several hours uninterrupted before I went off to work. Here's the thing, we were living in a small little apartment at the time, and if she just heard Luke in the other room make the slightest little noise, he didn't have to cry, didn't have to scream, he could just babble or coo, but that would be enough. That in itself was enough, and she wouldn't be able to sleep. What did I have to do? I had to take him out of the apartment. So for probably the first year of his life, we'd leave the house at five in the morning, and then we'd just hang out at the local coffee shop until eight. To this day, Luke loves the smell of coffee, and I think that's why. 

    Why do I share all of this? It would be very difficult for a nursing mother to forget her child because if too much time went on, she would experience both pain or joy that would remind her of her baby. There are two points that I want to make about this. 

    First of all, what we're being told here is that naturally the body is hardwired to think of one’s baby. That is a mother's natural disposition. So think about what God is saying about himself. He is saying that this is his natural disposition. God is saying that he is hardwired to remember us, to think of us, to love us, to commit himself to us, to attach himself to us. That's his natural disposition. We might think that his natural disposition is to be disappointed with us, to be angry with us, to be upset with us. But no, he is hardwired to love you. He feels a deep inner compulsion that is almost impossible to resist to attach himself to you. 

    Then secondly, here's the kicker, God is drawing a contrast here, not a comparison. He's drawing a contrast to a nursing mother. He's not saying he's just like a nursing mother. No, he says, despite the fact that nursing mothers are hardwired to care for their babies, we know that tragically, some moms don't always do so. That's the small minority, but we all know cases, we hear about it in the news where moms might do something cruel and evil to their babies. It's hard to understand, but it is possible. God is drawing this contrast, and he says, “Even if a mother could possibly go against nature and forget her baby, I will never forget you.” God is drawing a contrast here. Think of what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:11. He says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” It's a contrast of the lesser to the greater. His love for us, his attachment to us, his commitment to us is beyond anything we could ever imagine. It is beyond all comparison. That's the first image. 


    That brings me to the second one. If you're worried that God has forsaken you or forgotten you, then in verse 16, God says in response, “Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” Sometimes people will tie a string around their finger in order to remember to do something. I remember when I was in school, you'd sometimes see kids write something on their hand if they needed to remember to hand in their math homework or something. But God does more, he has engraved you on the palm of his hand. Think, a palm gets pretty heavy use. If you were to write on your palm with a pen, it might wash off. Even if you were to tattoo something on your palm, through heavy use, it could eventually wear off. But God has engraved you on the palm of his hand. You can't wash it off. You can't wear it off. What does it mean to engrave? To engrave something like stone or metal or wood or glass means that you cut into it with a hammer and a chisel in order to leave an indelible mark. It would be one thing for God to write you or to tattoo you on his back. It'd be one thing if God said, “I put a tattoo on my arm. I've tattooed you on my arm.” But instead, he says, “I've engraved you on my palm.” Why is that significant? Because our palms are highly visible. We always see our hands because they're right in front of us. We see them all the time. If God wants to remember us then that's a good place to engrave us. It’s good to engrave us on his palm because then we're always right there, right before his very eyes. But to engrave us on the palm is also painful, and that's why most people don't get tattoos on their palms, because the skin is thin. Our hands are filled with all these nerve endings, which makes our palms highly sensitive. They're one of the most vulnerable parts of our bodies. But you see, that's why our palms are signs of vulnerability. If we approach someone, we might put up our palms to show that we come in peace. We're not carrying a weapon. We're not coming with clenched fists. No, we come with open palms. It's not only a sign of vulnerability, it's also a sign of receptivity. We can't receive from others unless we stretch out our hands with open palms in order to receive whatever they might give. If you doubt that God really loves you, listen: He's engraved you on the palms of his hands. He says, “Behold, [look, see] I have engraved you in the palm of my hand.” It's almost as if through this verse God is stretching out his hands for us to look at those open palms, to see these self-inflicted wounds that are the very proof of his love. 

    You might ask, “How does God actually do that? How does God engrave us on his palms?” Can I show you something? When Isaiah, throughout these latter chapters of his book, goes on to describe the sufferings of the servant of the Lord, he tells us what the servant bears in order to bear away our sin. He describes what happens to the servant’s back and the servant’s face. We hear that the Lord's servant is struck and spitten and pierced and crushed. But Isaiah doesn't say anything about the servant's hands. You know why? Because that little detail is reserved for later. 

    Eight hundred years later in the ultimate sign of vulnerability and receptivity, Jesus stretched out his hands with open palms and he allowed soldiers to take a hammer and to chisel nails into his sensitive palms. Despite the fact that his skin was so thin, despite the fact that that's where all those nerves ended, he allowed those nails to be driven through his palms so that he might be hung up on a cross. Of course, he could have prevented it all from happening, but he went through with it in order to bear away not his sin but our sin. 

    We might feel like we're forsaken or forgotten, but the fact of the matter is that Jesus is the one who was forsaken and forgotten on the cross for us. From the cross Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why have you abandoned me? Why have you orphaned me, temporarily?” The answer is that Jesus was forsaken on the cross so that God will never ever forsake you. What strikes me is that after the resurrection, Jesus appears to his followers, and do you know what he says to the one named Thomas? In John 20:27, Jesus holds out his palms, and he shows his hands to Thomas, and he says, “See, behold, look at my hands. Look at the self-inflicted wounds that are the proof of my love for you.” 

    I've never gotten over the fact that when Jesus is raised from the dead, he continues to bear the scars of his suffering. It doesn't have to be that way. When God raised Jesus from the dead, it very easily could have been the case that he had a completely new glorified body, which meant that he was scar-free. But no, even in the resurrection, Jesus continues to bear his scars. We still see the mark of his wounds. Why? Because that is how he has engraved you and me in the palms of his hands. Do you realize that even now, Jesus' hands, his palms, they're always right in front of him. Whenever he looks at his hands, he thinks of you. Whenever Jesus looks at his nail-pierced hands, it fills him with love. He feels an overwhelming compulsion to love you, to commit himself to you, to attach himself to you, to bond with you. So no, he can never forget you. He can never forsake you. 

    It doesn't matter who you are. It doesn't matter whether you're a Christian yet or not. Our biggest problem really is that we don't believe that God loves us, not really. We don't think he could love us because of who we are and what we've done. If the gospel doesn't lift us up and send us, then we have to learn to talk to ourselves, we have to learn to address ourselves, we have to learn to preach to ourselves. No, God has not forgotten you. Even if it were possible, somehow, some way for a nursing mother to forget her child, he will never forget you. And no, you are not forsaken, because on the cross, Jesus was forsaken in your place so you never will be. You're never out of sight, you’re never out of mind, because he has engraved you on the palms of his hands. 

    Finally, one last image. In verse 16, God says not only I have engraved you on the palms of my hands, but your walls are continually before me. Remember, Isaiah was looking forward to that time when the Babylonians would destroy Jerusalem and tear down the walls. That's their lived reality. “My life is a mess. The walls have all been torn down. The city is ruined. My life is ruined.” But God says to those people, and he says to us, “Your walls are continually before me.” In other words, they're not torn down, they're rebuilt. God sees the New Jerusalem, the new heavens, the new earth, the new world that he's promised for us, which means that even now, in this moment, despite all the destruction and the devastation of your personal life, when God looks at you, he doesn't see you as you are right now. No, he sees you as you will be completely renewed and restored in the city that he has promised. That's our hope. That is our confidence. If that doesn't thrill you, if that doesn't melt you, if that doesn't move you, well then you have to reflect and meditate on that truth until it does, because this is the cure for spiritual despondency: to remember who God is, to remember what he's done, and to remember what he's promised to do, to know that we are never out of sight or out of mind. 

    Let's pray. 

    Father, as we come to this table, believers and skeptics alike, we know that our deepest problem is that we really don't believe that you love us, so we pray that in a special way you might apply the truth of your gospel to our hearts once more today, so that we might truly know the depth of your love for us, that you have bound yourself to us, and you have engraved us on the palms of your hands, that therefore we are not forgotten, we are not forsaken, nor could we ever be because of all that Jesus has accomplished for us through his life, his death, and his resurrection. Help us today to look upon the scars on his hands and to be assured of your love. We ask in Jesus' name. Amen.