For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth, and make it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.
An important detail at the end of verse 11 is often overlooked: God says that His Word will prosper in what He sent it to do. The essence of the Hebrew word underlying "prosper" is "to push forward," "to promote," or "to advance" in the sense of "breaking out." It means "to be profitable" or "to cause prosperity." God is saying that this powerful effect of His Word goes beyond mere accomplishment; it is not a matter of merely checking an achievement off a list. God's Word prospers—it causes things to grow, to advance, and to increase.
For instance, in Genesis 1:26, Elohim said, "Let Us make man in Our image," and look at the prospering—the advancement, the increase—that is happening from that command! If it were just a matter of accomplishment, God's Word could have been fulfilled when human beings' physical forms resembled God's own spiritual body. But God's Word is still reverberating 6,000 years later, advancing and causing an increase. When His pronouncement reaches its full potential, humanity will also be in God's character image.
In essence, God's Word causes things to increase just as rain causes crops to increase, but with God's Word, the increase is not always numeric. Often, it is qualitative rather than quantitative.
The Hebrew word translated as "void" in Isaiah 55:11 is used in several other places, but one context is of particular interest:
Three times a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God in the place which He chooses: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Tabernacles; and they shall not appear before the LORD empty-handed. Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the LORD your God which He has given you. (Deuteronomy 16:16-17)
Verse 16 uses the phrase "empty-handed" ("empty" in the King James Version), which is from the same word rendered "void" in Isaiah 55:11. The specific application in Deuteronomy is that God's people should not appear before Him without something of physical value to present to Him, but the spiritual application is much larger. While "empty-handed" is not an incorrect translation, it may serve to limit the instruction in our minds.
Remember, the Hebrew word translated as "void" and "empty" does not simply mean "without something to give." Its meaning is more general and not limited to a mere absence of something valuable. Combining the thought in Isaiah 55:11 and the fact that everything around us has its source in God, the phrase in Deuteronomy 16:16 could be paraphrased as "they shall not appear before the LORD without a demonstration of what God's Word has produced."
God's Word causes things to happen. God spoke, and plants fit for our food were created. He spoke, and the sun, which gives those plants light and energy, appeared. He spoke, and the seasons of the earth began their cycle. He spoke, and weather patterns were established so the plants would be watered.
As a result, in three seasons throughout the year, God commands us to appear before Him and offer proof of, not only what His Word has accomplished, but also what His Word has caused to prosper. In this way, offerings are beneficial to us as individuals, helping to remind us that God is the Source of everything and that His will determines how much is produced.
When we consider that the fundamental instruction in Deuteronomy 16:16 is that we should not appear before God "in vain" or "with futility" and that the context refers to how God has blessed us, the applications are vast, since God's blessings are far more than just physical. A monetary offering is just its most specific application for us on holy days, playing a large role in what the church can do in terms of feeding the flock and making a witness to the world.
But we would be in serious error if we concluded that our obligation ends there. More on this in Part Three.
- David C. Grabbe