The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it: surely the people are grass. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand forever. (Isaiah 40:6-8)
There seems to be instinctive in us a desire for permanence, constancy, stability. Something in us seems to resist all change. This characteristic is baffling, since it does not grow out of our experience. The environmental psychologists would have to blink and stammer at this one. They say to us that we are the products totally of our experiences. Well, we have never known anything in this world that lasted. Each moment and minute of time has been a stern summons to keep moving. Time marches on, or is it down, or up? We have ever been on the march, living with change every day of our mortal journey.
Still, we long desperately for permanence and stability. Is it that we are really native to some other clime, originally citizens of some dispensation where shift and change are strange and alien? “Where all o’er those wide extended plains shines one eternal day.” Do we come here by way of long human memory from some place where life and circumstance are unthreatened? Where “no chilling winds, no poisonous breath can reach that healthful shore, sickness and sorrow and pain and death are felt and feared no more.” Was Wordsworth on truth’s target when he said, “Trailing clouds of glory do we come from God who is our home”?
Whatever the case, we have to live with change. There are various versions of an instructive little story. One account of this widely told tale’s origin has it that Warren Hastings related it to some friends at the time of his trial in England. A monarch, so the tale runs, who suffered many hours of discouragement urged his courtiers to devise a motto short enough to be engraved on a ring, which should be suitable alike in prosperity and adversity. After many suggestions had been rejected, his daughter offered an emerald bearing the inscription in Arabic: “This, too, shall pass away.” And so, whatever it is, it shall. We must learn to live with change.
Isaiah spoke in his lovely musical fortieth chapter of the transitoriness of all that is on earth as over against the unchangeableness of God. Israel was enduring a bitter slavery. Her oppressors seemed invulnerable and unconquerable. Babylon had built a mighty empire. Her star in its ascendancy seemed so bright that it could never decline in brilliance and power. The downcast and dispirited exiles by Babylon’s streams could not help feeling overawed and forever helpless in the face of the great military juggernaut and the economic colossus which held them as slaves in the iron grip of its powerful hand.
As they looked around at the splendor of the architecture and masonry of Babylon, these slaves must have felt very small and insignificant. These poor Israelite captives had seen the wondrous hanging gardens of Babylon, called one of the wonders of the ancient world. Tradition says that these hanging gardens were composed of trees and flowers planted upon terraces, one upon the other, to a height of one hundred fifty feet and watered by means of a device similar to an invention of Archimedes. The humble, ill-clad slaves looking at this dazzling sight must have felt a terrible despair and an aching longing for home. Their melancholy cry cuts at the heart as they lamented. “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.” The society among which they were aliens and slaves was so highly developed and so intricately accomplished in literature and commerce and business. Modern excavations reveal an amazing body of literature carefully catalogued like a modern library. Babylon’s tax structure was elaborate and sophisticated, and her deeds and mortgages and bills of sale attest to a highly developed culture. What could some slaves mean midst all these achievements when they had only some exotic ways of worship and an invisible God upon whom to call midst the galling yoke and heavy oppression of their captivity?
The unknown prophet of the exile whom we call Isaiah took one look at all of this heathen splendor and pagan power and saw the fatal void at the heart of it all. Isaiah saw a deep and awful night, unillumined by the true and living God, at the very center of the bright achievements of Babylon culture. The prophet saw the mighty architecture of Babylonian power, unsupported by the Rock of Ages but erected upon shifting sand and treacherous soil. His voice rises like a trumpet of doom and hope midst the scattered dreams and sagging morale of God’s own people. “All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field.”
“Never mind,” he must have mused, “how green and lush the grass may seem. Never mind how bright and picturesque the blossoming flowers may appear.” Then he went on, “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth.” Let every person who stands in failure or success take note of this word. In the hour of failure we are likely to feel that all is lost, that we have come upon some endless desert, and for us there is no deliverance. People’s hearts in such hours fail them with fear. It takes a mighty courage to keep on marching when the journey seems endless and the pilgrimage seems hopeless. We can bear almost anything—personal misfortune, sickness, injustice, poverty, whatever—as long as we have some assurance as to when and how it will end. The sword passes to the heart when trudging a weary and rough way we see no sign of relief, no end, not even a turning. It is then that we are likely to feel a deep, numbing despair.
A gasp of admiration crosses the spirit when we think of people who have been able to look through their fears and peer through their heartbreak to the faith that nothing in this world remains the same. “I’m so glad trouble don’t last always,” some people desperately circumstanced once said, and found bright dawn for their deep night. On the other hand, the man who stands in the heady moment of success needs to hear the prophet’s words. When things go well with us, we tend to believe that the sun will always shine. Of course, we ought not to be constantly looking for a blow to fall, for sober tidings which snatch the breath away and leave us stunned and gasping. At the same time, in the day of calm, we ought while enjoying the quiet beauty, set ourselves for the time of storm and fury. We want our high and happy moments to go on forever. We do not want our privileged status in society changed. We want always to be praised and lauded and honored. We do not want to see our neighborhoods change. We want our church to remain the same. This a vain longing.
Change is the law of our lives, and we cannot maintain anything as we would have it. We are sailing on a restless sea. The voyage does not remain the same. We are going forward, or we are driven back. White-capped waves dash to and fro. There is endless, restless change on this bounding tempestuous sea. There are no permanent markers. The moon pulls at the sea, and the winds whip the waters. How shall we steer? By what shall we mark our way?
To change the prophet’s figure but not his truth, look up. Midst all this change there is a star. It is the North Star. For those who live in the northern hemisphere, the Pole Star is the one heavenly light which does not change position. The old sailors sailed by it. Wind and sun and moon and constellations shifted, but the North Star stayed in place. Even now the navigator must test his compass by the reliable constancy of the North Star.
Quickly now, do you see the answer to the whole thing? How odd of us not to notice that there is an answer, sure and certain, to our longing for abidingness. It really does not need any comment from me. “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth; but the word of our God shall stand for ever.” There, there is your North Star. Steer carefully and steadily by it.
Words of Gardner Taylor