Reflections and Blog

Will God’s Word Go Forth and Come Back Empty?

When talking about the effectiveness of the simple, preached word of the gospel to save souls, many people quote Isaiah 55:10-11, which says,

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
And do not return there without watering the earth
And making it bear and sprout,
And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater;
So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth;
It will not return to Me empty,
Without accomplishing what I desire,
And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.”

Isaiah says that God’s word will never come back void or empty when it goes forth, so that should encourage us in evangelizing with God’s word, right?

Well, yes, but perhaps not in the way we might first think.

The Three Words of God

It’s useful to remember that the Bible speaks of “the word of God” in three senses: there is God’s decreed word (his sovereign directives and pronouncements, e.g. Ps 33:6, 9), God’s incarnate word (Jesus Christ, e.g. Jn 1:14), and God’s inscripturated word (the Bible/gospel, e.g. 1 Thess 2:13). These three divine words are different yet related to one another and overlapping in many qualities. For example, each of these words come from God and are powerful and even life-giving (Gen 1:20-21; Jn 10:27-28; Phil 2:14-16). Also, as an example of relation, the incarnate word acts as God’s agent to fulfill the decreed word and is himself the source of the inscripturated word (Jn 1:1-3; 16:12-15).

But not everything that is true about one divine word is true of the others. For example, the inscripturated word is not what created the world; the world was created by God’s decreed word as fulfilled by the incarnate word (Gen 1:3; Heb 1:2). Or, as another example, only the incarnate word died on the cross for our sins, though, again, in fulfillment of the decreed word and as foretold and recorded in the inscripturated word (1 Cor 15:3).

Remembering the distinction in divine words is important so that we do not automatically apply to each of the three words whatever any particular Bible passage says about “the word of God.” If a Bible passage talks about God’s word, we want to ask which sense of the word of God is meant and, then, how whatever is said about that word relates to the other senses of the word of God, if it all.

The Word of God in Isaiah 55

If we pay close attention to the context of Isaiah 55:10-11, we can see that the sense of God’s word meant in those verses is the word of God’s decree. Starting back in Isaiah 40, God tells Israel what God himself will do in the future: God will come to redeem and restore the nation (Isa 40:1-11; 43:1-7; 49:14-26), he will judge Babylon (Isa 43:14-15; 47:1-15), he will raise up Cyrus to destroy kingdoms and bring Israel back from exile (Isa 41:1-4; 45:1-7), he will cleanse Israel from sin by a suffering servant (Isa 49:1-7; 52:13-53:12), and he will protect Israel in such a way that they never need fear again (Isa 54:11-17).

All of this is in direct contrast to the impotent idols, the false gods in whom Israel was so tempted to put trust. These idols, God notes, cannot declare what will happen in the future nor bring about any proposed good or evil (Isa 40:18-26; 41:21-29; 42:14-17; 44:6-20). The only true God not only declares what will happen in the future but also makes sure to bring to pass what he has pronounced (Isa 41: 25-29; 44:6-8; 24-28).

In Isaiah 55:1-7, God entreats Israel to respond in an appropriate way to everything God has just revealed he will do; Israel is to respond in repentance and faith. The people are to “seek Yahweh while he may be found” and “call upon him while he is near” (Isa 55:6); they are to forsake unrighteous ways and thoughts and return to the Lord to find forgiveness and pardon, which he promises they will surely receive (Isa 55:7).

Isaiah 55:8-13 then feature a series of supporting reasons encouraging the readers/listeners to turn to the Lord in this manner, with many sentences beginning with the word “for”: in verses 8-9, God entreats return on the basis of God’s ways and thoughts being so much higher than man’s; in verses 10-11, God entreats return on the basis of God’s word always accomplishing what God desires; and in verses 12-13, God entreats return on the basis of the restored joy and supernatural prosperity the repentant will one day experience in their own land.

We can see, then, from the verses surrounding Isaiah 55:10-11, that the context is not a discussion of the inscripturated word’s guaranteed effectiveness in evangelism. Rather, God entreats a saving gospel response from his people on the basis of the surety of his decreed word (which is now recorded in the inscripturated word of Isaiah). God has promised in this book of prophesy that Israel will be cleansed when they turn to God and will thereby find incredible, renewed blessing. These promises will indeed come to pass because, like the rain and snow sent from heaven, God does not send forth a word of promise or decree that fails. God’s pronouncements always bring to pass exactly what God intends and desires, for he is the almighty, sovereign God. With confidence, then, sinners should turn to God knowing that he will bring about what he has promised.

Isaiah 55:10-11 and Evangelism

So does the above mean that Isaiah 55:10-11 has nothing to do with the inscripturated word and, thereby, nothing to do with the gospel we preach in evangelism? On the contrary, one justified application of Isaiah 55:10-11 is that whatever God has promised (and recorded for us in the Bible) regarding our evangelism for his sake will indeed come to pass.

And what has God pronounced regarding our evangelism? That gospel preaching is what God will use to save souls (1 Cor 1:18, 24), that all of God’s chosen will be saved in God’s perfect timing (Jn 6:37), that no fortress within a person’s mind is strong enough to stand against God’s piercing word (2 Cor 10:3-5), that persecution and death will not stop the church or God’s gospel (Mt 16:18; 2 Tim 2:9), that God will be with us in every gospel encounter and empower us to faithfulness (Mt 28:20), that some will not understand the gospel and/or will react with hardening hatred and fear (2 Cor 2:15-16; Jn 3:19-20), and that all our gospel work and sacrifice will find its full reward on the day of Christ (Mt 25:21; 2 Tim 4:8).

Thus, the upshot of this article is not that Isaiah 55:10-11 doesn’t apply to evangelism but that the promise there applies to much more than evangelism. Whatever God promises will come to pass for his world and for his people, for just as the rain and snow do not come back to God without watering the ground and growing all manner of plants and fruit as he desires, so it is impossible that God’s word of decree should return to him without fully accomplishing his perfect will.

Questions to Consider:
1. Does it matter if you get the right application from a passage of Scripture but the wrong interpretation? Why or why not?
2. How should the fact that God’s promises and purposes in evangelism will not fail affect us in our evangelism?
3. How should you apply Isaiah 55:10-11 to other issues of the Christian life?