I Have Engraved You on the Palms of My Hands

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I Have Engraved You on the Palms of My Hands
Isaiah 49:8–16 (ESV)
8 Thus says the Lord: “In a time of favor I have answered you; in a day of salvation I have helped you; I will keep you and give you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages, 9 saying to the prisoners, ‘Come out,’ to those who are in darkness, ‘Appear.’ They shall feed along the ways; on all bare heights shall be their pasture; 10 they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them. 11 And I will make all my mountains a road, and my highways shall be raised up. 12 Behold, these shall come from afar, and behold, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Syene.” 13 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. 14 But 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. 16 Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.
In the weeks up to Easter as a church, we will focus on the question,
Why did Jesus come into the world? What was his mission? What did he come to do?
What we’re going to be doing during these weeks is looking at the final chapters (or the last chapters, the late chapters) of Isaiah because in the prophecy of Isaiah, a mysterious figure called the Servant of the Lord is prophesied and predicted.
He is going to bring salvation into the world.
The New Testament writers repeatedly identify this Servant of the Lord as Jesus.
This is the second of the Servant songs. Last week we looked at Isaiah 42. This is chapter 49.
Verses 1 to 13 are a sweeping, panoramic, comprehensive statement of the salvation God is going to bring into the world through the Servant.
Look carefully.
You’ll see there is a salvation soon and then eventually.[1]
As always, it’s important here to state the big story at work in Isaiah in order to grasp the power of Isaiah’s proclamation in chapter 49.
God’s people have been defeated, their temple destroyed. They are taken in chains to Babylon, alienated from their land and their God. This exile is a crisis of identity and faith. Are they still God’s people? How can they worship in this foreign land?
Into this crisis, Isaiah speaks a word of hope in these chapters.
He says, “I have greater ideas of salvation than just the return of the Jews from exile, as great as that’s going to be.
I’m going to bring salvation to all the nations of the earth.”
In verse 12, you see that vividly described, because in verse 12, it says when, through the Servant, God begins to gather his people together, notice they don’t just come from the east (from Babylon, which is where they would have come from to go back to Jerusalem).
God says, “I will bring my salvation to all peoples.
“ I’m going to draw believers from every nation. I’m going to create an international, multi-ethnic people of God.”
When you get down to verse 13 when the mountains are actually rejoicing,
we have a vision of the new heavens and new earth in which everything
… all suffering, all decay, all disease and even death … is put away.
The Israelites say we Don’t Feel the Love.
Despite this panoramic promise of salvation. in verse 14, we see Israel saying skeptically, “But I don’t feel loved.
There are all these promises of loving action, but I don’t feel loved.
In verses 15 and 16, we see God responding.
I want to look at this because I think verse 14 is a very, very typical condition that we find ourselves in, and, therefore, looking to see how God deals with it is incredibly practical.
1. The Pain of It All
Isaiah 49:14 (ESV)
14 But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.”
The figure is that of a wife or lover who feels abandoned. [2]
“Yes, salvation soon. Salvation eventually. Salvation ultimately. But what about now?”
“I feel forsaken.”
You’ve forsaken, forgotten me. I’m surrounded by needs now.
I’m surrounded by tragedy now.
Look at Zion. Zion is in ruins now! The temple was our assurance that you love us, and therefore, we have no assurance that you love us. You don’t love us!
How could there ever really be a multitude greater than anyone could count from every nation on earth (Rev 7:9)?
If Zion only looks at the outward circumstances of a desolate condition during the exile to Babylon, she may well conclude that God has forgotten her.
The human heart can live in the presence of truth that you believe, and it does not affect the way in which you feel or live at all.
It’s true of all of us sometimes. We say with our head,
“Oh, I believe in a God of love. I even believe in the biblical God of love,” but it doesn’t affect the way in which we live at all.
It doesn’t affect how we are. It doesn’t affect how we feel about ourselves or life. It doesn’t shape us.[3]
Sometimes you see stuff in there. You say, “I don’t know how God would love me, considering what I feel or am or have done.
There’s also a lot of evidence outside, which is unanswered prayers and just terrible disappointments.
The God of the Bible is a God of love.
I believe in that, but I see all the unanswered prayers around me.
I see all the failings inside me. Therefore, I don’t feel that this love of God is not a reality in my heart. It doesn’t transform my affections in how my heart operates.”
Therefore, Richard Loveless says you can’t just live with that, because if you don’t surmount that evidence, if you don’t find a way to get over that,
“If you don’t find a way to move beyond just mental subscription to doctrine, to heart-affecting, life-changing transformation of your life by that doctrine, you’re going to steal self-acceptance and love from other sources.” Richard Lovelace
You’ll say, “Oh, I believe God loves me.” Your heart doesn’t believe that.
What does he mean by stealing self acceptance?
You’re going to choose careers poorly.
You’re going to stay in relationships you shouldn’t be in.
You’re going to overwork.
You’re going to do all kinds of stuff because at bottom,
You have to steal love and steal a sense of your acceptability from all these other sources because you’re getting none from the thing you say you believe.
In one way, you do; in another way, you don’t. That is, God loves you.[4]
illustration of a little child
2. “I Will Not Forget You”
Isaiah 49:15 (ESV)
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.
How does God deal with this? How does God deal with this despondency, this sense of feeling forsaken and forgotten? There are two things he does.
He gives an answer to the question
and a cure for the pain. First, the answer to the question
God doesn’t say, “Well, just suck it up.”
doesn’t just give emotional support,
but he gives a very, very, very challenging kind of truth.
The God of the universe is like a nursing mother.
How is the God of the universe like one?
How is the God of the universe unlike one?
On the one hand, to answer that question requires an enormous amount of thought … hard thinking!
God is saying, “I want you to bring my truth and my theological truth into the closest possible connection with the affections of your heart until it begins to change them.” [5]
He says, “I want you to think.
I’m going to give you a very serious, challenging theological idea, but it’s going to be an image of the most intimacy and vividness that I want you to think about it until you feel something.
I don’t want you to do. I don’t want you to feel.
I want you to think and think and think until the thinking begins to affect the feelings and direct the feelings.” That’s what you have here in verse 15.[6]
God wants us to meditate and reflect on the nature of the bond between a nursing mother and her breast feeding infant.
How unconditional, sacrificial, and indestructible is a mother’s love for her child?
God says, “I want you to compare that to me.” Here’s the punch line. In fact, almost all modern translations say this. “Though she may forget, I will not forget you!”
By the way, the Hebrew doesn’t say, “Though she may forget …” It says, “She will forget “What do you mean a mother will forget?”
God is saying. “I am both like and unlike a mother. Here’s how I’m unlike a mother: Human mothers forget.”
You say, “What do you mean?” Well, some human mothers are bad.
Some human mothers abandon their children. “Oh, I had a good mother.” Yeah, but eventually, what if she keeps on … If she is old enough, eventually, she will forget you. She’ll go senile, and then she’ll die.
Eventually, all of us lose our mother.
A Mother's love may seem unconditional. It seems indestructible, but it’s not because human beings aren’t indestructible.
They’re imminently destructible, and they will be destroyed. says,
“My love will not be destroyed. My love is unconditional. It is indestructible.”
Let’s go on. God is saying … Do you know what he is saying here?
A Mother’s love is nothing compared to my love for you.
Do you see her physical love? Do you see her very being moves her to you?
Do you know everything about my glory, everything about my faithfulness,
Everything about my very nature drives me powerfully toward you?
I’m a God of love.
I’m a God of faithfulness. I love all I have created.”
Then beyond that, emotional. For God to compare and then say, “I’m infinitely greater than a nursing mother,” when you know a nursing mother just dotes on the child …
Sometimes if you ever watch a nursing mother, you just see it in a way the mother herself can’t see it. You see the radiance in her face.
God dares to say, “A mother’s love is just a dim hint of my delight in you.”
You know, when he says,
“… your walls are ever before me,” he is talking about Jerusalem. He is talking to Jerusalem, who had walls. Do you know what he is saying to you? He is saying,
“… your walls are ever before me,” Your life is ever before me. Everything about your life is ever before me. I will never forget you.
Can a mother forget a child?
A mother is fixed on the child. I am more fixed on you than a nursing mother on her child.”
Then, of course, unconditional. It’s a horrible insult to say, “I love you like a nursing mother loves her infant.” This is God’s way of saying, “You give me nothing. It’s nothing but take, take, take. You’re completely selfish.
You add no value to my life at all, and I absolutely love you unconditionally forever and ever. Amen.”
“If you knew that a love of this magnitude by a person of this magnitude was really, really yours, if the reality of this kind of love was an abiding reality to your heart moment by moment, existentially, consciously, what kind of person would you be?” Tim Keller
he answer is way different than the one who is sitting right here now.
At the very least, I could tell you this.
There would be a fountain of joy at the foundation of your life that no circumstance and no tragedy could overcome.
Not at all! Guess what? God is not done, because ultimately, this is still talk. See, here is a painful question. There’s a good answer to the question, a brilliant answer to the question. An argument!
Yet it’s still just talk. We have to get to verse 16 if we’re going to see a cure for the pain and not just an answer for the question. Here’s why.[7]
3. God’s Cure for the pain
Isaiah 49:16 (ESV)
16 Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.
Ultimately, what convinces you that somebody loves you is not talk but action.
Even the Bible says in 1 John, “Beloved, let us not love in word only, but in deed and in truth.”
It was sometimes true in ancient times that the name of a master might be tattooed on the servant.
The name of the master might be tattooed on the servant but never is the name of the servant tattooed on a master.That would mean a master was devoted to the servant, and, of course, that’s what we have here. Isn’t that beautiful? Another metaphor of God’s love.
It’s not a beautiful metaphor.It’s a horrible metaphor.
Do you know why? It doesn’t say tattooed. It says, “… I have engraved you on the palms of my hands …”
The word engraved is a particular Hebrew word engraved with a hammer, chisel, or spike. Now, suddenly, the metaphor is terrible.
Why would you conjure up the image of someone out of love, letting people take a hammer and drive a spike right into the palm of their hands?
Jerusalem is engraved on his palms, that is, cut into his very flesh, thus constantly, unendingly, on his mind. The particular issue of rebuilding her walls (cf. 44:28b and 45:13b) is constantly (תמיד) on his agenda.[8]
Doesn’t that make you cringe? Yes, it makes you cringe.
Centuries later, there was a man named Thomas. Thomas was like this guy here. I mean, verse 14. He was filled with doubts. “I can’t be sure!” All of his friends were saying, “He is risen! Everything is going to be okay, Thomas.” Yet Thomas was filled with anxiety and doubts. He couldn’t be sure!
What happens?
Jesus Christ appears to him, and he says,
“Look at the palms of my hands. See my love for you. Look at what’s on the palms of my hands.”
That’s the final argument because it’s more than an argument. It’s a deed.
This is not just talk. This is action. Do you know why it’s a final argument? What if you say, “Oh, I can’t believe God loves me, because look at all the awful stuff in me, the things I have done”?
Do you know what Jesus says? “You’re afraid God is going to forsake you?
On the cross, I was forsaken.”
“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” “I was forsaken.
I got the forsakenness you sense you deserve, so now no matter what you do, God will never forsake you.
He loves you as unconditionally as a mother loves her nursing infant.” You say,
“What about all these other things out here?”
“Don’t you see? I’ve done the thing you really need. If you see I’ve done that, will you please trust me?”
If right now your soul is restless, if right now your soul, like Thomas, is still filled with doubts,
if right now you feel forsaken and forgotten and abandoned.....
you’re like a restless infant who is whining and crying and just restless until it gets ahold of the milk.
“You can, through meditation, through contemplation, through taking the raw material of the Word of God and working it toward your heart, drilling it down toward your affections, be melted by spiritual understandings into blazing joy about God’s love for you. You have to live in holy consciousness of this.” Tim Keller
If you don’t take the love of God deeply into your heart you’ll have to take your identity from what people say to you.
You’ll be crushed when you’re insulted, and you’ll toss and turn in bed at night when you’ve been slighted.
You’ll be elated when something goes right.
You’ll be destroyed when you put on weight because you’re taking your identity from how you look and how people say …
You can be free from all of that. None of that has to darken your life.
Comfort yourself with these words. Comfort your hearts with these words. Comfort one another with these words.
Let us pray.
[1]Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. Redeemer Presbyterian Church. [2]Watts, J. D. W. (1987). Isaiah 34–66 (Vol. 25, p. 189). Word, Incorporated. [3]Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. Redeemer Presbyterian Church. [4]Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. Redeemer Presbyterian Church. [5]Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. Redeemer Presbyterian Church. [6]Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. Redeemer Presbyterian Church. [7]Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. Redeemer Presbyterian Church. [8]Watts, J. D. W. (1987). Isaiah 34–66 (Vol. 25, p. 189). Word, Incorporated. [9]Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. Redeemer Presbyterian Church. [10]Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. Redeemer Presbyterian Church. [11]Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. Redeemer Presbyterian Church.
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