Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings forth chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild beasts will honor Me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to My chosen people, the people whom I formed for Myself that they might declare My praise” (Isaiah 43:16–21).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
In all the searching that scientists do in outer space, one of the things they are most anxious to find is water. If they can find water, it would improve the chances that other forms of life might exist in the universe besides the life here on earth. Or, if water can be found somewhere else, it could be used to support human life in other parts of the universe. Water is essential to life—whether it be plant life, animal life, or human life. Without water, there is only death.
That was true in the history of the people of Israel, and it’s even more crucial to our spiritual life. When God speaks of or uses water, it usually signals something that is literally of life-and-death importance to His people. Truly, God’s use of water is a holy matter of death and life.
Our text reminds us of how God brought about death and life at the Red Sea (vv 16-17). Israel, just days after coming out of Egypt, was trapped with water on one side and the powerful Egyptian army on the other side. God provided a way through the water for His people, but when Pharaoh and the Egyptian army entered the sea, they were drowned (v 17).
For Israel, on the other hand, the waters of the Red Sea were saving waters of life (v 16). For God’s people, the way through the sea was the way to safety, a new life of freedom. Both groups went into the water, but only one group came out alive. This was the Lord’s gracious doing.
Because of their failure to take God at His Word to deliver them to the Promised Land, the Israelites were made to wander in the desert for 40 years. Water was always a life-and-death matter. Time and again the people complained that they would die of thirst (Exodus 15:22-24; 17:1-3; Numbers 20:2-5). In fact, their murmuring against God did lead to the death of many (Numbers 21:4-6; Deuteronomy 32:48-51). Nevertheless, the Lord again saved them with water. This time He provided water so that they wouldn’t die of thirst. He brought water from the Rock, changed the bitter water to pure, drinkable water.
Water was often a matter of life and death for God’s Old Testament people. And God, in His mercy and grace, provided for their needs, often in miraculous ways. In our text, though, the Lord tells Isaiah’s hearers not to look back on all that: “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, now I am doing a new thing” (Isaiah 43:18-19a).
So much of our faith and the faith of the Old Testament people is based on remembering the past. Here Isaiah urges the people to forget the former things because the new workings of the Lord will be even greater. The one who made a way through the sea will now make a way through the desert.
God will do a new thing to bring about both death and life—still using water. The new thing is a whole new era of history, which Isaiah describes in terms of abundant water. As the wandering Israelites had known so well, the wilderness was parched, inhospitable to animals and people. But in a new era, a day God let Isaiah foresee, it would be as if the desert would flow with rivers, providing abundantly for man and beast.
The more immediate context is God’s promised deliverance of His people from Babylonian captivity. Because of Judah’s stubborn rebellion and rampant idolatry, the Lord will use Babylon to chastise His people, to call them repentance. Jerusalem and the temple will be destroyed. God’s people will be marched off to Babylon. But God promises that after a while, He will bring them back home.
The Lord will break the power of the Babylonians and make these once power Gentiles fugitives. Their ships, which once carried precious cargo, in the future would transport them as fugitives. The Lord would dispatch the necessary forces to make this happen. Not only would God break the power of the Babylonians, but God would also release His people from captivity. They would find a way through the desert so they could travel back to Jerusalem, just as God once led Israel through the Red Sea and wilderness to the Promised Land.
This deliverance is greater in that it is a key event in God’s plan of salvation. More than the deliverance from Egypt, the release from Babylon paves the way for the fulfillment of a spiritual deliverance. Leaving Babylon behind, the people came back to Palestine to rebuild the temple, resettle in Jerusalem, and resettle the villages and towns of Palestine. They resettled Galilee, inhabited towns like Bethlehem and Capernaum, and made Jerusalem their center of worship once again. A great Redeemer would come from Bethlehem, begin His work in Galilee, and enter Jerusalem riding on a donkey. He would be beaten, suffer thirst, and die on a cross just outside of Jerusalem.
The people remained in the land until the coming of Jesus. One deliverance paved the way for the greater. No wonder, then, that they were to forget the deliverance from Egypt. It was a great deliverance, but an even greater one awaited. It was all part of God’s plan for His people.
This would be the age of the Messiah, the day when the Christ would come and restore the reign of God, making right all the corruption that sin brought into a once-perfect world. This age is now, the new reality established when Jesus came to earth, lived, died, and rose from the grave. The new age came with death, Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus’ death removed the curse of sin that turned the mists and rivers of Eden into wastelands and deserts. Jesus’ resurrection declares all things right again. The Church has long seen the Red Sea passage as a foreshadowing of this resurrection, life arising from certain death.
In this new age, God still kills and makes alive by water. Even more so than with the “former things,” water is important in our faith history. In fact, without water we have no faith history. We each share in God’s new thing by Holy Baptism.
Baptism with water kills. In Baptism, we die with Christ: “We were buried therefore with Him by Baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). That means we also die to sin, putting away the deeds of the sinful flesh. We no longer wish to carry out the lusts of the old man or woman. Of course, this dying with Christ, dying to sin, is so that we may live a whole new life. By Baptism, God also makes us alive again.
Baptism is when our life of faith began. Water was used and applied to us. It’s true our rescue was not as dramatic as that of the Israelites, but it was no less important. We were in a hopeless situation with nowhere to turn.
The way out was through water, and God provided it. When we were baptized, the Holy Spirit created in us a new person. In our text, God calls us “the people I formed for Myself” (v 21), using a Hebrew word much like the one describing His creation of the world, making something from nothing. Baptism literally brought spiritual life from spiritual death.
Obviously, it’s not the water itself that does such great things. We don’t keep or revere “holy water.” Rather, Luther explains in the Small Catechism, it is not the water indeed that does this, “but the Word of God in and with the water… along with the faith which trusts this Word of God in the water.”
God’s Word of Baptism is rich in promises. “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5–7). “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word” (Ephesians 5:25–26).
The water of our Baptism has long dried off, but the words that made that water a Baptism are still with us, and we are invited to recall them daily through contrition and repentance. So that our old sinful nature may be put to death, so the new Christ-like nature arises to live in righteousness, innocence, and blessedness forever.
Whether in ancient Israel or in outer space today, without water, there’s no hope of life. We thank God, therefore, that He has done an entirely new thing, better than giving water in the wilderness: by water and the Word, He’s delivered us from death and given us life in His Son. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all your sins,
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.