Text: Isaiah 40:9–11, 28–31.

1. Naturalists tell of an invisible line—real, definite, unchangeably fixed, at a given altitude above sea level—known as the “snake line.” We are told that in certain mountainous areas in New England one of the first questions of a prospective purchaser of a farm is likely to be: “Is this farm above the snake line?” Below that line there may be deadly reptiles, imperiling man and beast; above that line no snake can live. Below that line an unsuspecting child or an unwary adult might fall victim to one of these deadly reptiles; above, they may move about in untroubled security.

The upper altitude is kept securely inviolate, not by visible defenses of man-made barriers, but by an immutable mandate of the living God, dating back to the creation of the reptile world, in which God said in effect, “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no farther!” Security is purely a matter of altitude: pitch camp below the snake line, and invite possible disaster; pitch camp above the snake line, and be safe!

2. Scripture suggests a line similar to the “snake line” of the naturalists, which marks the division between a lower and an upper spiritual altitude. Below, the soul is never secure against the molestations of Satan, that wily reptile, that deceiver and destroyer of souls; above, Satan cannot come. Below, there is spiritual depletion, spiritual poverty, weariness, exhaustion, and collapse; above, there is spiritual replenishment, abundance, security, and endurance.

The upper altitude is suggested in Paul’s reference to the blessedness of sitting “in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6) and in his exhortation: “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth” (Col. 3:1, 2).

Similarly, the Prophet Isaiah speaks of God as dwelling “in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit … (Isa. 57:15). There, near to the heart of God, “they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” (Isa. 40:31). This text is an invitation not merely to spend a holy hour in the upper altitude, above the spiritual snake line, but to pitch camp and abide. “Waiting upon the Lord” means more than an occasional coming up for air, or an occasional flight to the upper altitude for refuge. Instead, it calls for trustful abiding like that of the babe nestled in its mother’s arms. The text suggests that there are two levels on which the Christian life may be lived or attempted, and draws attention to the results to be expected:

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1. Security Of The Upper Altitude

“They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength … mount up with wings as eagles … run, and not be weary … walk, and not faint.”

1. Here is the promise of more strength to endure the strains, temptations, and irritations of life.

(1) Those inclinations of the flesh, those creeping things—like fear, hate, envy, wrath, impurity—that thrive in the lowlands, disappear in the open sunlight of the divine presence. One of the vivid recollections of my boyhood is that of walking barefooted with others along the banks of the creek, finding a large, flat rock on the warm ground near the water’s edge, and discovering the fantastic aggregation of tiny wriggling creatures that stirred underneath. There, hidden from the sunlight, the slimy surface of the muck was alive with innumerable creeping things. But when the stone was lifted there was a frantic scurrying for cover, and in a moment every creature had burrowed into the darkness beneath the surface. To catch these creatures and dispose of them one by one would have been unthinkable; yet, to dispose of the whole aggregation required only a moment of open sunlight.

The way to deal with our many sins is not to struggle with them singly but to let the light of heaven into the soul. The way to acquire the Christian graces is not to strive for them one at a time but to open the heart and life to the Holy Spirit. Then, simultaneously, the nine-fold “fruit of the Spirit” makes its appearance: “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Gal. 5:22, 23).

(2) Those breakdowns that are so common in the lowlands are no problem in the upper altitude. “They shall run and not be weary,” though others are falling exhausted by the wayside. “They shall walk and not faint,” though others are breaking down. Those who lived through the great depression of the early thirties know something about hard times and fainting spirits. New York papers reported that on a single day, on Manhattan Island alone, eighty-eight persons had taken their own lives. In dark despair some had taken poison; others had turned on the gas; still others had leaped from tall buildings or cast themselves in front of on-rushing subway trains. But in the midst of the human misery of those days there were those who bore their losses and sorrows without breaking under the load.

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One prosperous businessman in the metropolitan area had lost his business, his home, and his liquid assets, and was left deeply in debt besides. He was a deacon in his church, a Sunday school teacher, and head usher. On Sunday mornings he continued in his place with the usual cheerful greeting, and he did the same on Sunday evening and at the midweek services. Casual acquaintances would never suspect that he had suffered financial reverses, and close acquaintances never ceased to marvel at the fortitude with which he faced economic disaster. How could he do it? The answer lay in his close fellowship with his Lord and the daily renewal of his strength. He was like that spring in the desert valley which never ceases to flow, even through the longest drought, because it is mysteriously fed by the inexhaustible waters of some distant mountain lake.

2. Here is the promise of more calmness of soul in the time of trial. The strong do not tremble. Fortified by continuous “renewal,” the soul is adequate. “The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Ps. 27:1b).

“In quietness and in confidence shall be your strength” (Isa. 30:15b). But how can a person be quiet and confident walking in the fog of the lowlands, out of step with God, alone in his struggles, conscious of the disapproval of God, and apprehensive of His descending judgments? Is not our want of serenity the index to our spiritual altitude, the reflection of our unbelief and want of commitment?

In total commitment, and nothing less, is complete serenity to be found. “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies [present yourselves bodily] a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service” (Rom. 12:1). Accept the total pattern of godly living. Live by principle—not by convenience, emotion, or the mood of the moment. No commitment means no serenity: partial commitment means partial serenity; full commitment means full serenity.

3. Here is the promise of more freedom from struggle. The strong do not struggle.

(1) Most of our struggles and consequent failures are due to low altitude. There were saints in the wicked city of Ephesus (Eph. 1:1), and there were sinners in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3). In a given environment one person finds serenity while another is kept in constant agitation and struggle. The one lives on the high altitude, where “it is well with my soul”; the other is living below the “snake line.” A little girl coming in from the flower garden with soiled hands, dress, and shoes made this refreshing observation: “Mother, I know why flowers grow; they want to get up out of the dirt.” Saints grow spiritually tall by stretching toward higher and higher altitudes.

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(2) Most of the characteristic triumphs of believers are achieved not in combat but in the avoidance of combat. Even the Archangel Michael would not venture into combat with Satan, but said, “The Lord rebuke thee!” (Jude 9). Occasionally an unseasonable frost will strike when fruit orchards are in full bloom. Fruit farmers may struggle day and night to save the crop, by means of smudge pots and smoke screens. But, as one experienced fruit farmer pointed out, the freeze that kills the fruit in the valley will often leave the blossoms on the uplands Completely unharmed. The “freeze line” and the “snake line” seem to have something in common.

There is a better strategy than the strategy of struggle. One of our famous airmen, near the close of World War I, landed his frail craft at Kobar, Arabia. Here a large rat managed to get into his airplane. The airman became aware of its presence when he was in mid-air and heard the sound of gnawing behind him. Alarmed by the threat of disaster, he remembered that rats cannot live in high altitudes. Accordingly, he nosed his plane upward until breathing was difficult. When at length he descended to a lower level the gnawing has ceased, and upon landing he found that the rat had died.

Truly, “they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.” But what about those who do not “wait upon the Lord,” and do not “renew their strength.” and do not “mount up with wings as eagles”? The alternative is a grim one indeed:

II. Insecurity Of The Lower Altitude

1. The eagle is well aware of the perils of the lowlands. While he may have to forage for a living in the lowlands, he builds his nest in the high cliffs beyond the reach of invasion from the reptile world. He does not needlessly expose himself and does not spend his leisure time defending his life against hazards from which the upper altitudes are free.

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2. The aviator is constantly warned against the peril of low flying. Want of alertness at this point has accounted for many disasters. An army bomber, flying over fog-shrouded New York City at about four miles a minute, crashed into the seventy-ninth floor of the Empire State Building. Thirteen persons were killed, and in addition to the destruction of the airplane there was property damage of about half a million dollars. After an exhaustive inquiry into the cause of the crash, there was only one answer: The plane was flying too low! There was no adverse weather, no malfunctioning of the plane; but the required altitude had not been maintained.

3. The Christian needs to realize the peril of low altitude.

(1) A man’s associations generally reveal his spiritual altitude. Kindred spirits gravitate together, and on each level a person will find himself in associations congenial to his own spirit. Wholesome associations raise favorable presumptions as to what a man is, while unwholesome associations raise correspondingly unfavorable presumptions. Although such presumptions are not always valid, and “guilt by association” has rightly been condemned as a basis of judgment, unwholesome associations often provide important clues in the detection of crime. “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful” (Ps. 1:1).

(2) A man’s associations may determine his conduct, his character, and his destiny. Those are our best friends in whose presence we can be our best selves. And when a good man gets into bad company, he generally ceases to be a good man. A heartbroken mother, appealing to the judge on behalf of her son who had been convicted of crime, kept repeating, “He is such a good boy; he just got into bad company!” She did not realize that when a good boy gets into bad company, he ceases to be a good boy; and when a good girl gets into bad company, she ceases to be a good girl. “Evil communications corrupt good manners” (1 Cor. 15:33b). Even so stalwart a saint as the Apostle Peter could not maintain his spiritual integrity while sitting among the enemies of Christ but shamefully denied his Lord (Mark 14:66–72).

(3) A man’s associations may be his making or his undoing. For the aspiring Christian who has moved up to high ground, the fellowship of kindred spirits is one of the choicest gifts of God and one of the most powerful safeguards to Christian living. But the old associations, below the “snake line.” must be forever broken. One man who had been redeemed from a life of drunkenness and sin, and who had set an inspiring example of Christian living for more than a year, fell back into his former loathsome state, to the astonishment and dismay of his Christian friends. They would not have been surprised if they had known that he was still parking his car every day in the same old place, and walking past the open door of the same saloon that had been his downfall before. One moment of weakness, one more drink, and he was back in the old life!

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There is something highly suggestive in one little phrase often overlooked in the biblical account of the shipwreck of the Apostle Paul by the Island of Melita (Acts 28:1–6). Because of the cold, a fire was built for the comfort of the shipwrecked.

As the Apostle Paul was laying a bundle of sticks on the fire, a deadly viper sprang out and fastened itself on his hand. By a miracle, Paul escaped harm; and he shook off the viper “into the fire”! There was finality in that gesture, and that viper would never jeopardize another life. Only by such finality can the defeated Christian move up from his precarious existence to the security “above the snake line.” He cannot drift to higher ground; there must be finality in his break with the old and his commitment to the new.

The appeal of our text is not an appeal to make a few minor adjustments, to improve our manners, to lay aside a few vices that can be conveniently spared, or to develop a few minor virtues, but to move the whole of life to higher ground. Thus in one sweeping gesture a thousand problems are solved. Near to the heart of God there is one decisive principle: “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” Life built around this principle is life at its best. The divine imperative is not merely to “lay aside the sin which doth so easily beset us,” but to lay aside “every weight” as well (Heb. 12:1). The “weights” may often be as damaging to the Christian life as the “sins.”

Some boys climbing in the high cliffs along the shore of Nova Scotia came upon an eagle’s nest. In it were some tiny baby eagles. One of these they took home with them and placed with a mother hen and her tiny chicks. Here the little pet grew; but, becoming more and more unlike the chicks, he began to stand alone in the barnyard looking up toward the sun. In the course of time he would try his wings, flopping along the ground. One day as he was standing in the sunlight as usual, another eagle flew over the barnyard. The pet eagle became strangely agitated. Standing on tiptoes, he unfolded his wings, and with a strange cry he rose from the ground, higher and higher, and presently disappeared from sight. It was a great day in the life of that eagle when he discovered that he was not made to be an ordinary barnyard fowl, to spend his life scratching in the dirt, but that his place was up there in the heavenly blue. And what a day for the defeated Christian when he comes into his true inheritance and takes his place in the intimate fellowship of the Heavenly Father, in the sweet security of those who truly “wait upon the Lord,” living above the “snake line.”—Chapter 3 from Sermons Preached without Notes, by Charles W. Koller (Grand Rapids. Mich.: Baker Book House, 1964). Used by permission.

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