Papal Meditation on Canticle in Isaiah 40

John Paul II Reflects on God as Omnipotent and Tender Shepherd

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VATICAN CITY, NOV. 20, 2002 ( Here is a translation of John Paul II’s address at today’s general audience, which he dedicated to a reflection on the canticle of the Book of Isaiah (40:10-11,13,17).

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1. In the book of the great prophet Isaiah, who lived in the eighth century B.C., the voices of other prophets, his disciples and successors, are also included. It is the case of the one whom biblical scholars have called «the Second Isaiah,» the prophet of Israel’s return from the Babylonian exile, which took place in the sixth century B.C. His work is contained in chapters 40-55 of the Book of Isaiah and it is precisely from the first one of these chapters that the canticle is taken which has entered the liturgy of lauds, which has just been proclaimed.

2. This canticle is made up of two parts: The first two verses are taken from the end of a most beautiful word of consolation that announces the return of the exiled to Jerusalem, under the leadership of God himself (see Isaiah 40:1-11). The subsequent verses constitute the beginning of an apologetic discourse, which exalts the omniscience and omnipotence of God and subjects the makers of idols to harsh criticism. At the beginning of the liturgical text, therefore, the powerful figure of God appears, who returns to Jerusalem preceded by his trophies, as Jacob returned to the Holy Land preceded by his flocks (see Genesis 31:17; 32:17). God’s trophies are the exiled Hebrews, whom he has snatched from the hand of their conquerors. God is depicted, then, «like a shepherd» (Isaiah 40:11). Frequently in the Bible and in other ancient traditions, this image evokes the idea of leadership and of dominion, but in this case especially there are tender and passionate traits, as the shepherd is also the companion of his sheep on the way (see Psalm 22[23]). He cares for his flock, not only by feeding it and being concerned that it not be scattered, but also by bending over the lambs and the ewes with tenderness (see Isaiah 40:11).

3. Having concluded the description of the entrance of the Lord, king and shepherd, in the scene, there is a reflection on his way of acting as Creator of the universe. No one can be on a par with him in this grandiose and colossal work: certainly not man, and even less so the idols, dead and impotent beings. The prophet then engages in a series of rhetorical questions, in which the answer is already included. They are pronounced in a sort of process: No one can compete with God and arrogate to himself his immense power and unlimited wisdom.

No one is able to measure the immense universe created by God. The prophet leads one to understand how human instruments are ridiculously inadequate for this purpose. Moreover, God was a solitary architect; no one was able to help and advise him in such an immense project as that of the cosmic creation (see verses 13-14).

In his 18th baptismal catechesis, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, basing himself on our canticle, suggests that we not measure God with the meter of our human limitation: «For you, such a little and weak man, the distance from Gotia to India, from Spain to Persia, is great, but for God, who holds the whole world in his hand, every land is close» (The Catecheses, Rome, 1993, p. 408).

4. After having celebrated God’s omnipotence in creation, the prophet delineates his lordship over history, namely, over nations, over humanity that populates the earth. The inhabitants of known territories, but also those of remote regions, which the Bible calls distant «isles,» are a microscopic reality in relation to the infinite grandeur of the Lord. The images are brilliant and intense: the nations are «as a drop of the bucket,» «as dust on the scales,» «powder» (Isaiah 40:15).

No one would be able to offer a sacrifice worthy of this grandiose Lord and king: all the sacrificial victims of the earth would not suffice, nor all the forests of cedars of Lebanon to fuel the fire of this holocaust (see verse 16). The prophet recalls man to the awareness of his limitations before the infinite grandeur and sovereign omnipotence of God. The conclusion is lapidary: «Before him all the nations are as naught, as nothing and void he accounts them» (verse 17).

5. The faithful one, therefore, is invited, from the beginning of the day, to adore the omnipotent Lord. St. Gregory of Nyssa, Father of the Church of Cappadocia (fourth century), meditated on the words of the canticle of Isaiah: «Therefore when we hear the word ‘omnipotent’ pronounced, we think of the fact that God holds together all things in existence, both those that are intelligible, as well as those that belong to material creation. For this reason, in fact, he maintains in existence the circle of the earth, for this reason he holds in his hand the ends of the earth, for this reason he holds heaven in his fist, for this reason he measures the water with his hand, for this reason he understands in himself all the intellectual creation: so that all things will remain in existence, held powerfully with the power that embraces them» («Teologia trinitaria» [Trinitarian Theology], Milan, 1994, p. 625).

In his song, St. Jerome halts in wonder before another wondrous truth: that of Christ who, «though he was in the form of God … he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, coming in human likeness» (Philippians 2:6-7). That infinite and omnipotent God — he notes — made himself little and limited. St. Jerome contemplates him in the stall of Bethlehem and exclaims: «Look at him: He who holds the universe in his fist, is held in a narrow manger» (Letter 22, 39, in: «Opere Scelte» [Selected Works], I, Turin, 1971, p. 379).

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the audience, the Holy Father gave this summary in English]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today’s Canticle from the Book of Isaiah (see Isaiah 40:10-17) consoles the people with the promise of their return to Jerusalem, and exalts the wonders of an all-powerful ands all-knowing God. It describes the Lord as a shepherd who not only leads his sheep but goes with them on their way tenderly feeding and caring for them.

Compared to the «God of Israel,» the nations and far-flung islands are no more than «a drop from the bucket» or «dust on the scales» (Isaiah 40:15). And yet, as the Church Fathers remind us, God who holds all of creation in his hand is the same Lord who was born in a humble manger. Before him we bow in prayerful adoration.

I extend a special welcome to the pilgrims from Sioux City in the United States accompanied by their Bishop and former Bishop, and to the Choir and parishioners of St. Francis Borgia parish in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims present at today’s audience, I invoke the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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