What would it be like to move in the Spirit the way an eagle moves in the air?
Normally, I reflect on the readings of Sunday’s liturgy, but today a different reading has grabbed my attention. Isaiah Chapter 40. This might be my favorite chapter in all of the Old Testament. If you have never read it, from first verse to last, I invited you to schedule 10 minutes this week to do so. It’s a treasure that will reward you many times over.
Who Has Cupped the Waters in His Palms?
What I’d like to do today is give you a flavor for this chapter and then to reflect on one verse that really moves me.
This chapter, Isaiah 40, begins with a phrase you will recognize.
“Comfort. Give comfort to my people.”
It is the voice of God, giving to his priestly people a message he intends for all the people of Israel.
What you may not know is that the word translated here as comfort is παρακαλεῖτε. This is the verb form of paraclete, the same word Jesus will later use for the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 14:26) – the Paraclete, the Comforter. So God is calling upon his priestly people, in some sense, to be ambassadors of the Holy Spirit. To paraclete the people. The word is rich in resonance.
The next phrase continues a similar theme.
“Speak to the heart of Jerusalem.”
Elsewhere in Scripture, it is God who speaks to the heart of the people (cf. Hoseah 2:14). So the message of this first verse is that God is imparting to his priestly people the capacity to be instruments of his Spirit, extensions of his own voice. This is deeply moving.
What is the message they are asked to convey?
There are several beautiful themes presented in the rest of the Chapter. There is the theme of mercy, the theme of readiness to welcome the coming of God. The theme of the transitory nature of human life vs the permanence of God’s word. God is presented here as a shepherd, who feeds his sheep and gathers them in his arms. He is presented as a mighty, omniscient creator, who measures the waters of the earth in his palms, and holds the dust of the earth in his fingers. Before this God, the nations of the earth, placed on a scale, would weigh less than a wisp of clouds. This is a majestic, al-mighty and transcendant God. He is a Creator who summons the stars in their myriads, numbers them and calls them each by name.
Isaiah 40 presents a picture of God at once mighty and tender. A God who wants to reveal himself to his people. Who summons a priestly people to be his ambassadors.
This is all just backdrop to encourage you to read the chapter.
Wings of the Soul
But there is one verse I want to pause before and ruminate over. One I have always understood to be translated in a certain way, but have discovered that there might be a better way.
The verse is this:
οἱ δὲ ὑπομένοντες τὸν Θεὸν … πτεροφυήσουιν ὡς ἀετοί, (Is. 40:31)
It is usually translated as:
“Those who wait upon the Lord … will soar on wings like eagles.”
I can’t verify what I’m about to say from the Hebrew. But the Greek translation direct from the Hebrew, known as the Septuagint, enables us to reach a moving insight.
The key verb is “pterophueo.” You’ll recognize the root: ptero, from pterux, meaning ‘wing’ (hence, pterodactyl means a creature with wings-as-fingers) plus the verb root phuo, meaning ‘to grow.’ Pterophueo thus does not mean “soar on wings” per se. It means more literally, to “grow wings” or “to be winged.” Thus the phrase should be translated:
“Those who wait upon the Lord … will grow wings like eagles; or will be winged like eagles.”
There is a difference.
To soar on wings like eagles suggests flight; but flight upon appendages that properly belong to eagles. But to BE winged like an eagle means the change has happened in the soul itself. It means the soul itself grows wings or is winged. The soul, in itself, develops the capacity of flight.
Is 40:31 thus means that the soul of one who waits upon the Lord can move in the Spirit as a winged eagle moves in the air. Whatever this analogue to wings is, it is co-natural to the soul; it is a part of its essence. It means: that which is to Spirit what wing is to air grows within the soul.
Let me try to re-state verse 40:31. The soul that waits on the Lords believes in, hopes in and counts on the Lord. This is a soul with the gift of deep faith. Such a soul develops the capacity to rest in, rest upon and move in the Spirit. Just as the wing enables the eagle to move through the air and at times to rest in the air.
Such a soul can paraclete another human being; can speak to the heart of Jerusalem; because in such a soul the Spirit acts; and such a soul acts in the Spirit. This is the gift God gives to his priestly people to make them his ambassadors.
We thus receive a sharper grasp of this amazing analogy of eagle flight in Isaiah 40:31. The soul that waits upon God will be a soul that learns to move in the Spirit as an eagle moves in air.
I want to draw a connection to the Gospel passage of Sunday: Mk. 10:35-45. There Jesus tells James and John that greatness consists in service, not in personal glory. Service and charity are like the air in which the Christian soul learns to move. If we truly seek God, it is in charity and service that we will find him. And finding him there, we will find ourselves moving and acting in his Spirit.
We will be winged. And as we move upon these wings, we will find ourselves moving in the Spirit. We will develop a quality of being, a spiritual nature, a virtue, a strength – I believe this is the spiritual heart that Ezekiel describes being given to the believer – that will enable us to move in the Spirit the way an eagle moves in air.
Father, those who wait on you will be winged as eagles. This is the word Isaiah speaks. You give your priestly people the capacity to move in your Spirit the way an eagle moves in air. I believe you. I trust in you. I will stand and I will move in that grace you give. I will act with that quality of soul you give; those wings of the soul you give to your children. Amen.