Pitch a Bigger Tent

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Isaiah 54:1-7

One of the great missionary texts in the Bible comes not from the gospels or epistles, but from the 54th chapter of the prophecy of Isaiah.

One of the most important and influential Christian leaders of all time is a man you may never have heard of. His name was William Carey. William Carey was born in England in 1761. He grew up in a poor family, was apprenticed to a shoemaker as a boy, then became a cobbler himself and worked at his trade for ten years or so. But Carey was also a keen student of the Bible, who continued to read and to grow intellectually by studying on his own. In his 20s he became a lay preacher, and eventually he was called to be a Baptist pastor, much like John Bunyan more than a century earlier.

But unlike Bunyan, Carey was not a great writer; that is not why we remember him today. What made William Carey unique, and earned him a place in history, was his thinking about missions. At the time Carey entered the ministry, almost no one in the established churches seemed to care very much about communicating the Christian faith to the nations of the world. But William Carey was different. He had a world-wide vision; his conscience was stirred by the thought of so many millions who had never heard of Jesus Christ. Carey thought the Great Commission should be taken seriously; in fact, that it should be obeyed. When he challenged a group of ministers with this view one of them rebuked him sharply: “Young man, sit down. When God is pleased to convert the heathen, he will do so without your help or mine.”

Unable to get anywhere in face-to-face encounters, William Carey wrote an influential little booklet entitled “An Inquiry Into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen.” The book’s thesis was that the church’s primarily obligation is to take the gospel actively to the whole world. Within a year of its publishing a missionary society had been founded and William Carey himself was on his way to India, where he spent the last 40 years of his life as a missionary. The modern missionary movement had begun.

Shortly before he left for India, William Carey was invited to address a missionary meeting in England. A line from the sermon that he preached that day became his most famous saying, one that is still quoted today. Carey said: “Expect great things from God, and attempt great things for God.” But the sermon itself was based on a text from the 54th chapter of Isaiah.

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.

Isaiah 54:2-3

Promises to the People of God

This text is a command from God, through the prophet, to his people Israel. Isaiah puts the command metaphorically, using an image from the days of the patriarchs, when God’s people were all one extended family living in tents in the land of promise. What he says is that they need to make more room in their dwellings, to stretch out the side curtains and lengthen the cords that support the tent poles and strengthen the stakes to which the ropes are tied. In other words, they need to pitch a bigger tent! The reason for all this is revealed in two wonderful promises stated in the opening verses of Isaiah 54. The first promise is of a restored relationship between God and his people.

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. For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. . . .

Isaiah 54:4-6

These words are addressed to the people of Israel in exile. The survivors of the population of Judah are now languishing in Babylonian captivity, their homes and city destroyed, their Temple burnt to the ground, their royal family deposed, their God — apparently — overwhelmed. To all intents and purposes, Israel is finished. And so are all the promises of the Word of God.

But now there comes a new word, with an announcement of another chance. Isaiah compares the condition of the people of God in exile to that of a widow. They are desolate, defenseless, without help in the present and without hope for the future. But unlike a widow, Israel’s circumstances are her own fault. God’s people have been unfaithful to him; that is why disaster has befallen them. They have only themselves to blame for all their misery.

But now comes this incredible promise. Israel’s shame, disgrace, and humiliation are over (v. 4). God is rescuing them, restoring them to a relationship of intimacy with himself, extending his protection and love to them once more. In other words, God is welcoming them back into his family. We often think of having a family relationship with God, don’t we? But usually when we do that, we see ourselves as his children and God as our Father. But here in Isaiah the Lord uses a different, more intimate analogy. He says that he is a husband, and his people are his wife: “For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer” (v. 6).

The second great promise follows from the first. It’s the promise of growth, of increase.

“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. (v. 1)

Here’s God addressing his people as if they were a childless wife. He tells them to sing and shout for joy because the bitter sorrow of that childlessness, that barrenness is going to be taken away. The desolate woman will have more children than she knows what to do with. And that’s why they’ll need a bigger tent, so stretch the tent walls, expand the supports, lengthen the cords, strengthen the stakes. But what does all this picture-language actually mean, in plain words? The barren, desolate woman is Israel; and so is the tent. The promise of many “children” clearly points to numerical increase. The people of God are going to grow and expand dramatically. But I don’t think that God is speaking here in imperialistic terms.

When he says, “you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your offspring will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities” (v. 3), God is not promising the future establishment of an Israelite empire that’s going to conquer and absorb all its neighbors militarily. No, the true fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy has to do with “Israel” in the New Testament sense, that is, with the church. The apostle Paul quotes this very promise from Isaiah 54:1, “for the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married,” and he applies it to his Christian readers, adding that “you . . . are the children of promise” (Galatians 4:27-28). So William Carey was entirely right to use this text from Isaiah as the basis for a Christian missionary sermon because the growth and increase that God promises to his people points directly to the ever-expanding family of those who come to know this God through Jesus Christ.

If These Promises Are True . . .

Let’s think for just a moment about what these words could mean to you and me personally. Here’s one thing I think they mean: If the promises of Isaiah 54 are true, then God is your husband too, and he’s mine. That is to say, he is your life’s true fulfilment. All the things you’re looking for in life, all of your desires and dreams, all that you long for and hope for and work for, whatever they may be, they are really only pointers toward the deeper need you and I have for God. Even marriage and family, which for most of us is our greatest joy in life, at its very best can only hint at what it’s like to know the living God. The richest earthly happiness is only a pale hint of the eternal joy of intimacy with the God of the universe. Jonathan Edwards once put it this way:

The enjoyment of God is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams. But God is the ocean.

from “The Christian Pilgrim,” quoted in John Piper, Supremacy of God in Preaching

But then, if God is the fulfilment of our deepest needs and desires, he must be that for everyone. He is called “the God of all the earth,” says Isaiah. He isn’t just a local God, a tribal deity. He is not the God only of the Jews or the Christians. Knowing this God isn’t life’s ultimate need just for religious people, it’s everyone’s greatest need. Having a relationship with God through Christ is the only source of lasting happiness for every person on earth. So that means, finally, this: Our tent is still too small. As long as there’s one person left outside, one family that hasn’t yet heard of God’s incredible love in Christ, we need to do something. We need to lengthen our cords and strengthen our stakes. Today it’s our turn to “expect great things from God, and attempt great things for God.” Are you willing to do that?